When the D.C. General show first aired in late May, WAMU 88.5's Martin Austermuhle reported on the risks and realities of closing D.C. General. In this two-way discussion with Rebecca Sheir, he brings us up to date on efforts to move families out of the shelter and what the upcoming winter could bring.
So, when you first reported on this topic for us, plenty of people were calling for the shelter’s closure. At the time, many city officials were hoping D.C. General would be closed before this winter. But that’s not going to happen, is it?
It’s not looking likely. Just about every city official… from the mayor to members of the D.C. Council… want to see D.C. General closed, but they all admit that talking about closing it is much easier than actually closing it. Here’s Deborah Caroll, the interim director of the Department of Human Services, speaking at a Council hearing in July: "I think everyone agrees that D.C. General should be closed. I think we agree that it needs to be closed in a planned way."
And what does that “planned way” entail?
Part of it is finding alternatives for the families in D.C. General. In April, Mayor Vincent Gray launched a campaign to find housing for 500 families within 100 days.
At the end of those 100 days, 198 families had been moved out of D.C. General and other shelters and into housing units. This week, that number is up to 250 families, with 229 housing units still available. It’s good progress, but short of the 60 to100 placements per month that D.C. officials estimate are needed to reduce the population of D.C. General to the point that it can be closed.
According to DHS, as of this week there are 196 families at D.C. General, which is down from 244 in July. So we’re talking 643 people, 261 of which are adults, and 382 are children.
At July’s hearing, Deborah Carroll gave an updated timeline on closing D.C. General. Here she is again: "Under the best of circumstances, it will not happen before the end of this year. Our goal is 18 months, it does take time."
Let’s talk about operations at D.C. General. When we first talked with Deputy Mayor B-B Otero, she told us the city was in the midst of a review of the shelter’s operations. What’s the latest there?
Well, the review is actually specific to the Relisha Rudd case. Rudd is the eight-year-old girl who disappeared from the shelter earlier this year, allegedly taken by a janitor who was later found dead. Rudd is still missing, and it was her disappearance that brought more scrutiny on D.C. General and how it’s operated. Deputy Mayor Otero’s office tells me that report will be made available to the public in a few weeks.
Looking ahead a few months… we have local elections coming up here in D-C this fall. Do you expect D.C. General will play a role in the mayoral or Council races? And is it likely the election will affect what the city decides to do with D.C. General?
As I mentioned earlier, no one disagrees that D.C. General needs to be closed, so I wouldn’t expect much debate on that issue. But where we could expect to see some debate is on the broader issue of affordable housing.
David Catania, a Council member who is running for mayor, has taken shots at fellow candidate Muriel Bowser for not doing enough to preserve affordable housing. Bowser chairs the Council’s committee that deals with housing policy, and Catania says she hasn’t introduced any substantive bills or held oversight hearings on issues related to the city’s dwindling stock of affordable housing.
It could also get interesting for Bowser in the next few months, because D.C. is deciding what to do with a large, empty building in her ward, Ward Four. There are plans to redevelop it into market-rate and affordable housing, but many community members are concerned about whether that means it could be used to house homeless families. So Bowser will have to tread carefully to balance community concerns with the reality that if D.C. General is closed, there will likely have to be smaller shelters across the city for emergency situations.
A few months ago, I know things were not looking good in terms of what the city was budgeting to help homeless families. Did things get any better on that front before the Council took off for its summer break?
Not really. I’ll let Kate Coventry, who follows homeless issues for the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, explain: "So this budget for the coming year actually provides less for family homeless services than this year that we’re currently in, even though the city struggled to meet the rising needs in fiscal year 2014. So we’re concerned that once again we’ll find ourselves unable to give homeless families with children the help that they need."
Coventry says the homeless-services budget has gone down because D.C. doesn’t have some federal funds it had available last year. She also says that Gray budgeted no money for hotel rooms, which have been used during the winter when every other emergency shelter option was full.
So, looking ahead to this coming winter… is it likely that D-C General is going to fill up with new residents yet again once the temperatures drop?
It looks like it. D.C. officials say they want to come into the winter season with 50 empty rooms at D.C. General, but homeless advocates say those would fill up quickly. And now city officials are already preparing the public for the likelihood that the shelter will be full again this winter. Here’s Deborah Carroll, responding to a question from Council member Jim Graham at that July hearing.
JG: What assurance can you give this committee and the public that D.C. General in February 2015 will look any different than it did in February 2014.
DC: I can’t give you that assurance.
So D.C. General is most likely going to remain open this winter, and it remains to be seen if the city will improve conditions for the families that are still there.