Arlington shelter battle may resume

November 10, 2012

The impending $27.1 million purchase of a new seven-story home for Arlington County government would not be very controversial if not for what is planned for two of its lower floors — a comprehensive homeless services program and year-round shelter for single adults.

Even as some neighbors opposed the purchase a year ago, they acknowledged the need for the shelter. The leader of the organization that operates the current winter-only shelter in the county said that a year-round shelter will save money and lives, and it has broad support from churches, businesses and residents.

But when the County Board votes Saturday to complete the purchase of the Thomas Building, 2020 14th St. North, and authorize spending an additional $15 million for renovation, residents are likely to see a replay of the long debate last December.

County officials say the building, for which they have been negotiating for two years, is a good fit for their current and future needs. They plan to consolidate several offices that are in leased spaces and use it as a base for facility maintenance, fleet operations and computer storage. The building is across a large parking lot from the current county offices, and directly across the street from the large courthouse complex and police station.

It’s also $2 million more than the amount that the County Board authorized a year ago, but Deputy County Manager Marsha Allgeier said it’s within the range of what officials anticipated when crafting the capital improvement plan this summer. The county is working with the 18 office and three retail tenants whose leases will expire with the sale.

Some nearby residents remain strongly opposed.

Kenneth Robinson, president of the adjacent 170-unit Woodbury Heights condominium complex, said that in the past year, twice as many condos as normal have gone up for sale in the only owner-occupied building in the neighborhood. Putting a shelter nearby is “a crackpot idea,” he said.

He said he remains deeply suspicious of county government, asserting that the new purchase price was held back, to be announced just days after Arlington voters authorized $153.4 million in bond requests for other capital improvement projects.

“I want the county to say they won’t house anybody with a criminal record of a violent crime at that shelter,” Robinson said. “They should commit to not housing registered sex offenders. And they need 24/7 security guards.”

Kathleen Sibert, executive director of A-SPAN, which operates the existing 75-bed emergency winter shelter, said that there has not been violent crime at the shelter and no registered sex offenders stay there. That shelter, she noted, has been a block from the proposed new location for the past 20 years.

The lack of housing is what causes problems, she said, including emergency-room visits and arrests for substance abuse. The lack of proper shelter also can also lead to death; a homeless Arlington man died Oct. 26 in the “healing garden” near the Virginia Hospital Center.

“We find that if we can get people indoors and stabilized, we can get them permanently housed much quicker,” she said. “It is cheaper for the taxpayers, and it is the right thing to do. We want to be good neighbors and we will be good neighbors.”

Patricia Sullivan seeks out news about Alexandria and Arlington County for the Washington Post.
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