Agency for the Homeless Faces Homelessness

By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 28, 2007

For 17 years, the Old Naval Hospital carriage house has been the command center for an organization that reaches out to homeless men and women with drug addictions. But a plan for a new community center could transform the little brick building into a "family-friendly cafe" with indoor and outdoor seating and WiFi.

But Hal Gordon, founder and president of the Community Action Group, doesn't want to give up the two-story Civil War-era building, which the nonprofit rents from the city and has fixed up using its own money.

"In the rush for economic development, they've totally forgotten the poor people," said Gordon, who described the carriage house as a "historic beacon for the homeless and drug addicts serious about their recovery."

The D.C. Office of Property Management announced in February that it would pay $6 million to restore the 140-year-old vacant hospital and the carriage house, on Pennsylvania Avenue SE just east of the Capitol, into a facility that serves the community. The agency put out a call for proposals and assembled a panel to review the admissions.

The panel selected a proposal from the Old Naval Hospital Foundation, a coalition of Capitol Hill neighbors who have raised $2.5 million. Their plan is to create the Hill Center -- a cultural destination that would provide classes taught by groups such as the Smithsonian Associates and space for events such as lectures, recitals, meetings and art shows. The carriage house would become a cafe that could also cater receptions, dinners and other events at the hospital.

"This is the financial piece to support the center," said the Rev. Paul R. Abernathy, a member of the foundation's board and rector at St. Mark's Episcopal Church on Capitol Hill. "This is how we're going to make this center work."

Abernathy said the foundation's plan was based on years of research into the needs of Capitol Hill residents along with surveys and assessments.

The Community Action Group, which is affiliated with Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Catholic Church on East Capitol Street, also submitted a proposal, but it was rejected -- so the group could be booted out of the carriage house as soon as construction begins. The organization has several properties, including a family treatment center in Anacostia and a community center on 15th Street SE.

Last week, when the city held a public meeting to get feedback on the proposals, about 200 supporters of the Community Action Group showed up, many holding framed photos of some of the 1,500 people who have graduated from the program, Gordon said.

"We collected our people last Thursday night with the express purpose of letting the D.C. community know that the madness needs to stop," he said. "They need to consider conditions affecting the poor, not push us out."

At the end of the meeting, advisory neighborhood commissioners for the area voiced support for the foundation's plan but asked the property management office to delay its final decision until late August so that a compromise can be worked out. D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said that those discussions have begun and that a meeting is planned next week.

"I really value [the Community Action Group] as a very important part of the community," Wells said.

Abernathy said that the foundation is not trying to pick "lunches over lives" and that its board members are open to a resolution that can accommodate both sides.

"Conversations are going on," he said. "We can find a resolution."

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