What Comes Next If D.C. General Is Shut Down?


Welcome back to “Metro Connection.” I'm Rebecca Sheir, and this week, we're taking an inside look at D.C. General, the city's shelter for homeless families. We've already explored the D.C. General of the past and the present. And in this next segment, we'll look ahead toward its future. Martin Austermuhle brings us this story on the political push to close D.C General and what may happen to families living there if the shelter shuts its doors.


If you think there's any debate about the future of D.C. General as a homeless shelter for families, think again.


I certainly believe that D.C. General is no place for families and children to be raised.


Everybody has agreed that D.C. General is not a good place for a homeless shelter.


That was Mayor Vincent Gray and D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson, the city's two most powerful leaders. And that's just a small sampling. Council members Anita Bonds, Kenyan McDuffie, David Grosso and Jim Graham all told me they'd like to see D.C. General closed, as would most homeless and housing advocates. But agreeing to shutter the shelter is the easy part. What to do with the families in it is more complicated. That's because while a shelter is easy to empty, finding homes for the homeless in a city that's grown more expensive isn't so easy. Here's Patty Fugere, the Director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.


If we take D.C. General offline, if the city closes D.C. General down without alternatives, I don't know what's going to happen. We're going to have an even greater crisis next winter than we faced in 2013.


This message isn't lost on Graham, who represents Ward 1 on the D.C. Council. He says he'll soon introduce a bill formally calling for D.C. General's closure, but not until the city provides alternatives for the families in it.


And those would include the availability of other small scale emergency shelter for the hypothermia season, appropriate apartments for families identified in sufficient numbers. And then, of course, assuring ourselves that the mayor's 100 Day, 500 Family plan is working, because if that's not working, then we have a whole different problem.


Graham is referring to Mayor Gray's plan, unveiled in April, to work with landlords to find homes for 500 families within 100 days. But even Gray admits it's not going as planned. In a letter sent to Mendelson in late May, he said only 99 families have been placed in housing. At that pace, he said, the initiative won't reach its goal by the end of 100 days, on July 11th. Activists say there's also a much broader problem. The rapid decline in affordable housing in D.C. Here's Patty Fugere again.


We have a serious lack of affordable housing in the District of Columbia, and it has come to crisis proportions. People need a safe and decent, affordable, long term permanent place to be. And when they don't have that, they end up languishing in these makeshift solutions.


For weeks, housing advocates and residents have been walking the halls of the Wilson Building, hoping to convince legislators to put more money into programs that help low income residents find housing and pay the rent. Over the last two years, Mayor Vincent Gray has committed over 100 million dollars to a fund aimed at preserving and building affordable housing. But Jenny Reed of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute says there isn't any new money for programs that could help D.C. General families get out.


Right now, the budget for homeless families is projected to be 20 percent lower than it is in the current fiscal year, and we don't expect to see a 20 percent decline in the need of homeless families next year.


Even with some last minute funding changes made by the D.C. Council this week, including money for more case managers at D.C. General, Reed says the money needed for homeless families is still down relative to last year. For Councilmember Jim Graham, that lack of funds and the slow start to Gray's housing campaign mean that D.C. General may remain open through another winter, if not longer.


If we don't muster the will to marshal the resources, it'll get filled up again. It'll get filled up again because once these empty rooms are sitting there and there's a blizzard in January or February, and there are families with no place to go, we'll begin to fill it up out of necessity.


B.B. Otero, the city's Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services, is trying to tamp down on expectations that D.C. General will close this year, even though that's what she'd like to see.


The key is that we have to do it responsibly. The key is that we have to do it so that the alternatives are 10 times better than what we currently have. And so that may take it a little bit of time.


She's working hard on Gray's 500 Families, 100 Days Campaign, but says it's not something she'll be able to do alone.


We would really encourage anyone who has rental units, large or small landlords across the city, to reach out to us. And if we do not have landlords come in and offer up the spaces, we run a huge risk of not finding housing for families.


And if that housing isn't found, D.C. General may remain, at least for now, the only home available to hundreds of families that have nowhere else to go. I'm Martin Austermuhle.
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