The District lacks the resolve to solve its homelessness crisis

Petula Dvorak
Columnist May 15

At a sparsely attended meeting in the basement of a library last week, District officials revealed plans to move about 100 homeless women out of the Harriet Tubman Emergency Women’s Shelter, which is in a decrepit wing of the old D.C. General Hospital. The building that houses Harriet Tubman is in even worse shape than D.C. General’s family shelter, the place where 8-year-old Relisha Rudd was living before she disappeared more than two months ago.

Harriet Tubman is dirty, pest-infested, leaky and unsafe. But don’t worry! The Department of General Services has a solution: the old morgue that was abandoned two years ago. They’ve cleaned up the formaldehyde left from embalming decades of the city’s dead. And, anyhow, the women would be sleeping in the medical examiner’s old offices, not the freezers imbued with the unforgettable stench of death, city officials explained.

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

And you thought the homeless crisis in the District couldn’t get worse than 600 children living in an abandoned hospital. But this is the way the city has been handling its soaring homeless problem for years. In 2007, it was D.C. Village that was the symbol of the District’s homeless problem. That shelter in Southeast Washington was infested with rodents, mold blooms and bedbugs. The paint was peeling. More than 100 families were languishing in a dying building that had been repurposed as an emergency homeless shelter for families but had become a pit of despair.

“This is the premier example of how not to care for our homeless neighbors,” then-Mayor Adrien M. Fenty (D) had said at a news conference announcing the closing of D.C. Village. “It’s not only inhumane but against best practices.”

Workers scrambled to find apartments across the city, and all 115 families were moved into their own places with a two-year subsidy and enough donated goods for a fresh start. Homeless problem solved, D.C. leaders congratulated themselves. Oops. Maybe not.

Seven years later, the city’s homeless population continues to soar. A report released Wednesday revealed that the number of people without homes has grown 13 percent from last year. There are 460 families living in D.C. General, the abandoned hospital that replaced D.C. Village as the city’s greatest shame.

And once again, city leaders want to shut it down and move the homeless families into their own apartments.

“No amount of money can repair that hospital; it’s time to get out,” said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who chairs the council committee that oversees the homeless shelter and is planning a vote this month on shutting the place down and moving families out.

But where?

No one has a plan to truly solve the problem, given the city’s affordable housing crisis. And other council members are opposed to a shutdown until the city has a real solution in place. But closing down D.C. General would save the city $1.4 million a month, and you can create and run plenty of small-scale shelters throughout the city for that amount of cash, Graham argued.

That’s also the best we’ve heard from D.C. Council member and mayoral candidate Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4). But four years ago, she adamantly opposed a plan to house 75 homeless families at the former Hebrew Home for the Aged on Spring Road in Northwest. Her community, she said at the time, already had an “inordinate amount of group homes,” and Spring Road had two homeless shelters: a men’s transitional shelter and an 88-room family shelter.

During her mayoral primary campaign, Bowser said she supports a Housing First model of moving families into their own, short-term subsidized housing. The problem: Where are these places? “We’re looking, we’re searching,” said a city official at the hearing last week.

I don’t understand why these places are so hard to find. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said he would move 500 families out of the shelter in 100 days, but was looking for places to move them.

Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) said the problem is that the city has no real housing plan. It’s crisis management all the way.

“We have dug ourselves into a very substantial hole,” said Catania, who is also a mayoral candidate. “And you can’t say it’s a homelessness problem. Homelessness is the function of a failed housing policy. And we have no housing policy.”

Graham said the problem is inertia. The weather warms, the city’s legal obligation to house homeless families during the winter months ends and the sense of crisis dissipates. Not even the awful fate of sweet little Relisha has increased our resolve.

We keep kicking the can down the road. And the can, in this case, is hundreds of our city’s children who never asked for this life.

Twitter: @petulad

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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