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Panel Paves Way for Sale of Former Shelter

Police Remove Protesters From Room as Measure Moves Toward D.C. Council Hearing

By Theola S. Labbe and Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 11, 2004; Page B03

A D.C. Council subcommittee yesterday cleared the way for the city to sell a school building once used as a homeless shelter as police dragged protesters from the room.

"You're letting people freeze to death," one protester yelled.

Mayday DC members David Benzaquen, left, Marcella Largess and Adrian Madsen protest the sale of the Randall School homeless shelter at the hearing. (Photos Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)

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The three-member panel, headed by D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), voted 2 to 1 to declare Randall School, which had housed 170 homeless men until the city closed it last month, surplus property. Graham and council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) voted in favor of the measure, which will go to the Committee on Economic Development and then to the full council Dec. 21.

The city plans to sell the building for $6.2 million to the Corcoran Museum of Art and College of Art and Design. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) opposed the move, saying the building at I and Half streets SW should remain a shelter.

Margaret Bergen, a spokeswoman for the museum, said: "[We] are pleased with the progress achieved today. We look forward to becoming a vibrant member of the Ward 6 arts community."

When the subcommittee meeting began, the fourth-floor council chambers held a handful of advocates for the homeless from Mayday DC. One by one, the advocates began reading loudly from a prepared statement in an attempt to disrupt the meeting. Each time one was escorted out, another began to read.

On Thursday, members of the advocacy group disrupted the meeting, and later two of them perched on a fifth-floor ledge inside the atrium of the John A. Wilson Building for 5 1/2 hours.

The two activists, Cen Cascadian, 18, and Emily Rudicell, 19, were persuaded by police negotiators and a member of their group to leave the ledge and were charged with unlawful entry and disorderly conduct. They pleaded not guilty to the charges and were released. Protective Service officers, assigned to guard District government buildings, attended yesterday's hearing at the request of the council.

Graham, who described himself as an "advocate for the homeless," said he was convinced that Randall should remain closed after Catholic Charities, the organization that operated the shelter, said it was in poor condition.

"The deteriorating Randall School structure can no longer -- can no longer -- truly serve a public purpose," Graham emphasized. "The public purpose remains, but the Randall building is not up to this task."

On. Nov. 3, the city opened a new 150-bed homeless facility on the campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast Washington. Graham said transportation is being provided from the closed shelter in Southwest to the new one.

Fenty, describing how he was inspired by homeless advocate Mitch Snyder as a teenager, blamed Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and past city officials for allowing the building to deteriorate since 1988, when it was first used as an emergency shelter.

"For 16 years, we have failed to provide adequate shelter at this site," Fenty said. "In many ways, they have continued the pattern in this government of not doing what they're supposed to do. . . . Randall should have been renovated into a first-rate shelter a long time ago."

Randall, a 150,000-square-foot former junior high school, was also the home of the Millennium Arts Center, a nonprofit group that sponsored arts programs.

Protective Service officers escorted five people from the meeting but made no arrests. Officers asked Adrian Madsen, 22, and David Benzaquen, 20, to leave the chambers before the meeting began and kept them in an employee lounge for a portion of the brief hearing. Both men received an apology after the meeting from council secretary Phyllis Jones, who told them they should not have been removed.

Three other protesters who had shouted as Graham made his opening remarks were also escorted into the lounge, where the officers blocked the door.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company