District Closing 'Inhumane' D.C. Village

Jenetta Chandler, a former resident of D.C. Village, joins council member Marion Barry in speaking about the shelter's future.
Jenetta Chandler, a former resident of D.C. Village, joins council member Marion Barry in speaking about the shelter's future. (By Melanie Lidman -- Street Sense)
By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The District plans to close D.C. Village, an emergency shelter for families, some of whom spent more than a year living in overcrowded, pest-infested conditions that officials called "inhumane."

The city began relocating families at the shelter last month and says it will have moved all of the 115 families into transitional housing by the end of this week. The units, scattered throughout the city, will be subsidized by the Department of Human Services. In addition, the city will create a case management system for families to identify and work on the obstacles they face in trying to stabilize their living situations.

"We want to address the conditions that have our neighbors homeless," said Acting Human Services Director Clarence H. Carter, who was joined at a news conference at the shelter in Southwest Washington by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8).

"We want to look not only at how we house our homeless families . . . but at enabling conditions for them to be able to capture back their lives," Carter said.

The closing of D.C. Village ends a years-long battle between advocates for the homeless and District officials on how best to deal with homeless families, which under city law are not supposed to be housed in communal shelters for safety and health reasons.

The last 32 families are to leave this week, including Angela Payton, who said at the news conference that even though conditions at D.C. Village were horrendous, she wanted to thank the staff for giving her shelter. Three months ago, with her children in tow, Payton went to D.C. Village after leaving an abusive relationship .

"I came here with one diaper bag in the middle of the night," Payton said. "I leave with 35 to 40 boxes [of donated goods], and I'm going to my own apartment."

Sczerina Perot, staff attorney for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said the organization was "thrilled they're closing down what had been operating illegally for years. But solving the homelessness problem is not as simple as draining the swamp that is D.C. Village. Homelessness is more like a stream."

Perot said that until more deeply subsidized housing is created in Washington's real estate market, "more people will become homeless every day and will need help from the District government to keep their kids safe and to keep from living in cars and in abandoned buildings."

Decades ago, D.C. Village had been a sprawling nursing home before it was closed because of scandalous conditions. The facility reopened 10 years ago as a winter, or hypothermia, shelter for homeless families.

During his tenure as a D.C. Council member, Fenty conducted public hearings at D.C. Village on the conditions there. Fenty was chairman of the council's Committee on Human Services, and homeless families walked down the corridor to testify about living with bedbug-infested mattresses on the floor, dormitories overrun by mice and insects, scabies infections, poor food and non-functioning air-conditioning and heating units.

"This is the premier example of how not to care for our homeless neighbors," Fenty said yesterday. "It's not only inhumane but against best practices."

For the past few months, the city, in conjunction with the Community Partnership for Prevention of Homelessness, which runs the city's emergency shelter services, has found 200 apartments that landlords are willing to rent to the families. Their rent will be paid by the city until the families become self-sufficient, through the help of social service case managers, and secure their own housing.

Perot said groups that advocate for the homeless will closely monitor the system. D.C. Village morphed from an emergency winter shelter for families into a year-round family shelter years ago because of the city's lack of adequate transitional apartments, she said.

In addition, the city has been funding nearly 110 transitional apartments for homeless families for years. The families were supposed to stay for as long as six months, but many of them have remained for two to three years because they did not receive adequate social services to help them become independent.

The focus now, Carter said, would be to help such families "deal with their problems."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company