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

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Everyone agrees that D.C. General needs to be closed, but saying so is easier than doing so.
WAMU/Martin Austermuhle
Everyone agrees that D.C. General needs to be closed, but saying so is easier than doing so.

This story was originally published on May 30 as part of Metro Connection's special show on D.C. General.

If there's one thing that most D.C. officials seem to agree on, it's that D.C. General needs to be closed.

"I certainly believe that D.C. General is no place for families and children to be raised," said Mayor Vincent Gray this month. "Everybody has agreed that D.C. General is not a good place for a homeless shelter," echoed D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson.

That's just a small sampling of the calls for the shelter's closure: Council members Anita Bonds (D-At Large), Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), David Grosso (I-At Large), and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) all told us last week that they too support shuttering the facility, which has housed hundreds of families and children in recent years.

But agreeing to close the shelter is the simple 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 has grown more expensive isn't. That's something that most city officials and homeless advocates admit, and they say that the slow-going process of rehousing D.C. General's residents will make closing the shelter a longterm project.

"I don’t think that we can actually close the shelter until we have a viable alternative to make sure that people that need it have the housing that they need in an emergency situation. These families need another place to go, we can’t just knee-jerk close it. For me, that’s a tougher question," says Grosso.

Patty Fugere, the director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, agrees. For her, D.C. General may not be a good shelter, but until alternatives are identified, the city can't rush to close it.

"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," she says.

That message isn’t lost on Graham. 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.

"Shortly I’m going to introduce legislation that would close that shelter, providing that certain legal benchmarks are met, and those would include the availability of other small-scale emergency shelters for the hypothermia season, appropriate apartments for families identified in sufficient numbers… and assuring ourselves that the mayor’s 100 days, 500 families plan is working, because if that’s not working, then we have a whole different problem," he says.

Graham is referring 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 had been placed in housing. At that pace, he said, the initiative won’t reach its goal by the end of the 100 days, on July 11.

Activists say there’s also a much broader problem: The rapid decline in affordable housing in D.C.

"We have a serious lack of affordable housing in the District of Columbia, and it has come to crisis proportions," says Fugere. "Looking at this issue as only an issue of homelessness cuts us short and we’re not going to get to the real solutions. Because shelter isn’t the solution for people experiencing homelessness, people need a safe and decent affordable long-term permanent place to be. When they don’t have that, they end up languishing in these makeshift solutions we’ve cobbled together, places like D.C. General."

Gray has invested more money in the Housing Production Trust Fund — some $100 million over the last two years — that will go towards preserving and building affordable units. But while Gray has set a goal of 10,000 new units, city officials admit it will take time — until 2020, at least.

There's also the issue of funding for programs that could help get homeless families out of D.C. General. According to Jenny Reed of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, the funding is decreasing.

"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. All of this means that families will sit in shelters for much longer than they need to," she says. (DCFPI and a number of other social service organizations have published a roadmap for helping homeless families.)

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.

Officials and advocates admit there's another challenge: Where to put smaller shelters that could serve for emergency situations.

"We can’t have people saying, ‘Well that’s a great idea, just do it over there,’ wherever over there may be," says Gray. "In order to effectively and responsibly close D.C. General, there has got to be a set of alternatives, because there will always going to be families who are in crisis, and we need to have a place to be able to put them."

For Graham, the lack of funding for critical programs, the slow start to Gray's housing campaign and the possible resistance to smaller shelters throughout the city means that D.C. General may remain open for 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 family with no place to go, we’ll begin to fill it up out of necessity," he says.

Given the challenges of closing the shelter, 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. That may take it a bit of time," she says.

As a means to accomplish that, she says she's working hard on Gray’s 500 Families, 100 Days campaign, and sounds optimistic. She says the city has identified 300 units, but many have yet to be inspected. (Under the program, residents would pay 30 percent of their income towards rent, while the city would cover the rest.) Still, she's urging landlords to help.

"We would really encourage anyone who has rental units, large or small landlords across the city, to reach out to us and offer the possibility for a family to live with dignity in a community, 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," she says.

Graham tries to stay positive about D.C. General closing once and for all, but he worries that interest will eventually wane. Without focus and political will, he says, the city might find itself having the same debates and discussions in years to come.

"If we don’t say, ‘No, we don’t want this kind of life for our families in the District of Columbia… we don’t want them to live this way, we don’t want them to live 5, 6, 7 to a hospital room.’ Then if we don’t have that will, then I fear that it’s just going to be more of the same in the future. That’ll mean more Relisha Rudds, that will me more problems that we’ll have to pay for eventually. We pay for the piper today, or we pay the piper later on," he says.

Music: "A Month's Lifetime" by Star FK Radium from Solitude Rotation


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