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Inside D.C. General: A Tour of the City's Largest Homeless Shelter

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D.C. General still maintains the feel of the hospital it once was, though it now serves as an emergency family shelter.
WAMU/Tara Boyle
D.C. General still maintains the feel of the hospital it once was, though it now serves as an emergency family shelter.

To get a feel for how it looks and feels inside D.C. General, try this.

Imagine a bustling hospital. Information and check-in desks buzzing with staffers answering phones. Nurses scurrying in and out of patient rooms along brightly-lit corridors. The sounds of beeping, bleeping medical equipment and machines filling the air.

Imagine all of that… and then make it all go away.

Or not all of it, actually. The information and check-in desks are still there; they’re just empty. The nurses are long gone but the rooms remain; only now they contain thin cots, and their glass-paned doors are sealed off with brown paint. The hallways are considerably less crowded, though they now have painted-on names like “Destiny Drive,” “Harmony Lane,” and “Serenity Lane.”

As for those medical machines, well, aside from TVs in each floor’s community room, the only real machine you’ll see is the metal detector in the front lobby, manned by a handful of security guards.

The guards are among 115 staff members at D.C. General, and when I visit on a Wednesday morning, 275 families are living here. But each floor is pretty quiet.

“During the day it’s a lot quieter than in the evening,” explains Michael Berry of the Community Partnership For The Prevention of Homelessness, the nonprofit the city is contracting to run D.C. General. “A lot of families are out working, [in] school, or just out. You usually get more traffic after 4:00 p.m.”

Berry says families typically stay at the facility eight to ten months. D.C. General can hold 288 families, which he says can mean as many as 960 people.

“Our average household is about a total of four, which can be either two adults and two children, or one adult and three children,” he says.

They live in the various hallways of the building’s four residential floors.

“So, we have a hallway here which houses families, down here all these rooms house families,” Berry says, as he gestures at the long corridors. “Anywhere from one-plus-one, and we have families as large as two-plus-eight.”

After Berry gets a key from a hallway monitor on the second floor — “Residents aren’t given keys, so when they come in they have to be led into the room,” he explains — he shows me a vacant room intended for two or three people. It’s pretty spare, pretty basic: unadorned pale-yellow walls, tiled linoleum floor, cots.

Since I’m here on a Wednesday, that means it’s room-inspection day. Berry says the rooms are inspected every week. What they’re looking for, he says, is “just the overall cleanliness of the room. If there are odors, no food left in certain places, because these are the things that can cause rodents.”

That’s why Berry says there’s a weekly extermination service. But according to some residents, major problems remain.

“I don’t like it. It’s just really dirty and nasty in here,” says 19-year-old Johnisha Carter. “They got mice. A lot of stuff. Raccoons.”

Carter has been living in D.C. General with her children for three months now. She says she’s asked staff to address the problems she’s seen, “and they get real nasty with you.”

Patty Mullahy Fugere is executive director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, and she says she’s heard many clients make the same complaints.

“We’ve also heard folks say that they’re being told if they complain too loudly it will just get the shelter closed down and they’ll be out on the street,” she says.

Before the city put the Community Partnership in charge of the shelter, it was run by Families Forward. And, says Fugere, there were far worse problems than mice and raccoons.

“A couple of years ago, the scandal related to D.C. General was that security staff were trading juice boxes and blankets for sex with parents,” she explains. “Folks were feeling up against the wall in terms of wanting to provide for their children. And with that kind of pressure, it created this real terrible power dynamic. And I think that’s something that the families are continuing to struggle with.”

But not all families — or so says 37-year-old Ernestine Little. She and her three kids came to D.C. General six months ago, after being evicted from their apartment in Southeast Washington.

“I heard a lot of people talk about the shelter and what was wrong with the shelter. But it’s not so bad,” she says. “Long as you mind your business and continue doing what you do, then, you know, you won’t be in a lot of mess.”

Nettle says she used her time at D.C. General to get back on her feet, and today she’s moving out. Her next step is to go back to school, and, she hopes, one day open a laundromat. And that, says Cornell Chappelle, deputy director of the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, is what it’s all about.

“We’re giving a whole array of services: case management, we have a clinic on site, we have Department of Behavioral Health here, we have connections with the schools,” he explains. “So primarily we’re giving families the opportunity to have a place to stay, to become stabilized, and assisting them with being able to move on to more permanent housing.”

But the ultimate goal, he says, is for D.C. General to become more or less obsolete.

“What we would love is for everyone here to have an affordable housing! To move out! And not have to come back.”

Music: "Adios, Johnny Bravo" by The Orchid from Beyond The Vast, Endless Sea


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