D.C.’s shelter for homeless families: A dead-end village that must be closed


D.C. General is an abandoned hospital in Southeast Washington that serves as the largest family shelter in the nation’s capital. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
Petula Dvorak
Columnist July 14

You’ve probably never heard of N Street Village, but it’s a nonprofit where more than 1,400 homeless women are fed, clothed, housed, educated, healed and counseled every year.

For more than 40 years, N Street Village has been an example of how a small, properly run homeless shelter in downtown Washington can serve the needy effectively and compassionately. The shelter continued to fulfill that mission even as Logan Circle changed around it, shifting from Prostitution Central to a neighborhood of million-dollar condos and high-priced restaurants.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

N Street Village is the polar opposite of the ghetto the city has created at D.C. General, an abandoned hospital in Southeast Washington that serves as the largest family shelter in the nation’s capital. On Sunday, three of my colleagues at The Washington Post published an investigation into the dysfunction and decay at D.C. General. The alleged sexual assaults, vermin, filthy water and lack of heat are exactly what happens when we herd hundreds of vulnerable parents and children into one huge facility hidden from the city’s upwardly mobile eyes. And not even the disappearance and presumed death of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd have made a real dent in our apathy.

For years, I’ve been visiting this place, and it always takes a while to shake off the smells, the sounds and the feelings of a dead-end village. It’s not the homeless parents and their kids who give you that feeling. No. You meet bouncy girls with cute braids, a high school valedictorian or a scootering little boy, and you marvel at the optimism and light they still have in a part of the city that no one wants to see.

But the sprawling campus where they live shares land with a clinic for meth rehabilitation and sexually transmitted diseases, the city jail and the old morgue. The folks who hang out where as many as 600 children play, run, walk and wait for the bus are the kind many of us rush our kids past every day — people getting high, cursing, spitting, glaring.

We see them on the street corner and quicken our pace. These kids share their front porch with them all day, every day.

The building itself is infested and dirty, The Post investigation found. According to the newspaper’s report this weekend, kids living at D.C. General have gotten skin rashes and scabies and have gone to the hospital after being covered in bug bites. This month, the doctor who runs the health clinic told a D.C. Council committee that the children at the shelter have a disproportionate amount of disease, depression and obesity.

The outrageous part?

Whenever anyone writes anything about this place, there’s always an outpouring from folks who say the District’s growing homelessness crisis is about entitlement, laziness and people looking for a handout. Trust me. None of the mothers apparently washing their babies in brown water or chasing mice and roaches away from their beds want to be there.

But real solutions have been elusive because other parts of the city simply don’t want to have anything to do with these families.

The most jarring example happened in Ward 4 a few years ago, when the District wanted to renovate the old Hebrew Home for the Aged on Spring Road NW, which the city has owned for four decades, and turn it into a small-scale homeless shelter.

D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), who is now running for mayor, helped block that plan, complaining, along with her constituents, that there were too many group homes in the neighborhood and arguing that one more would harm property values.

Huh. N Street Village is near booming 14th Street and hasn’t hurt property values, which have been soaring in recent years.

The city is flush with cash and owns more property than the most megalomaniacal Monopoly player ever. Take a look at the city’s Web site and check out how much land the District holds. It’s astonishing. Or look at the D.C. Vacant Properties blog and try to believe the resources aren’t there to turn the affordable housing crisis around.

It costs the city $50,000 a year to house one family at D.C. General, in a place that does unspeakable damage to children and families that we will see echoed in awful ways for years to come.

It’s time for a solid plan and a firm date to shut down the District’s shameful shelter and begin using the city’s money and property to build smaller shelters that will rebuild — not break down — struggling families.

All we need is the will.

Twitter: @petulad

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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