Arlingtonians struggle over homeless shelter

December 14, 2011

Arlington residents living near a proposed homeless shelter wanted County Board members to know one thing: They have nothing against the homeless.

But during more than 21 / 2 hours of emotional debate about the proposal to put a year-round shelter in what is now a commercial office building, homeowners severely criticized the plan.

“We do support a [new] homeless shelter, but this property is seriously flawed,” said Patricia Yeh, who lives in the Woodbury Heights condominium complex and, like her neighbors, objected to how county staff planned the purchase and how it communicated the idea. “If you choose to adopt this, you’ll be sending the message that ‘the Arlington Way’ is synonymous with government arrogance, government overreach and government incompetence.”

Nevertheless, County Board members voted unanimously at 12:45 a.m. Wednesday to authorize County Manager Barbara Donnellan to make a $25.5 million offer to buy the Thomas building at 2020 14th Street North and to start eminent domain proceedings to acquire the building if the offer is refused.

Board members said the building, in the high-rise, high-rent Courthouse neighborhood, is a “strategic acquisition” that would allow the county to provide more services to the homeless. Now, the county has only an emergency winter shelter.

Supporters of the purchase included several formerly homeless people, who spoke of the importance of having a place to go where the staff can show them how to get social services.

Opponents said there are better places for the shelter than some of the most expensive real estate in the county, adjacent to a condominium complex that houses many single women, elderly and children and whose residents walk to the Metro station during the day and the night.

Several registered sex offenders use the winter shelter as their address, opponents said, while supporters pointed out that the proposed shelter would be across the street from police headquarters.

Among the most moving of the 55 speakers was Michele Gallo, a Woodbury Heights resident, who said that she was attacked by a homeless person in her youth and that she has twice chosen to move out of neighborhoods because she did not feel secure.

“Now, 30 feet from my doorstep, you put a homeless shelter with registered sex offenders?” she said, sobbing. “I am tired of being a victim. I am tired of being driven from my homes.”

The Rev. Richard Cobb, pastor of Central United Methodist Church, sympathized with the residents because when he arrived at the church several years ago, homeless people stole church banners and congregated near the entrance. When the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network (A-SPAN) wanted to set up a drop-in center at the church, “it was the worst thing in the world. I thought the devil had come to get me,” he said.

But now he’s changed his mind. A-SPAN, the nonprofit agency that runs Arlington’s shelters, enforced the rules for those who used the drop-in center. Litter disappeared. The church banners stayed in place. The church’s day-care center continued to operate without problems, and nearby residents had no objections.

“What you’re hearing are fears and worries,” Cobb said. “I am not talking fears. I am talking reality.”

The winter shelter, two blocks away, has been considered temporary for 20 years and is physically inadequate, county staff members said. If the county buys the Thomas building, a two-floor renovation will provide an all-year shelter with access for disabled persons, and the county will be able to offer comprehensive services to help homeless people transition to more permanent housing.

Most of the 200-plus office tenants would be allowed to stay for the terms of their leases, Donnellan said. Ground-floor retail establishments would be encouraged to stay as well.

County Board members promised to work with residents to ease their concerns about safety.

A-SPAN vowed to work with residents and offered to set aside a seat on its board for a resident.

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