Former D.C. hospital crowded with homeless families

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 12, 2010

Flooded with more homeless families than the city has ever seen, District officials have jammed up to 200 families into space at the D.C. General shelter meant for 135. The result: serious overcrowding, with people bunking together in common rooms and sleeping on cots in hallways.

On Monday, more than 190 families -- 242 adults and 390 children -- were living at the family shelter on the former hospital's Southeast Washington campus. The number of families fell to 175 Thursday as city officials worked feverishly to place at least 50 families in alternate housing by the end of Friday.

Matthew Salgado, who said he has lived in the shelter with his girlfriend, Ashley Coleman, 20, and their 10-month-old, Milayah, since late December, said the crowding has led to arguments and near-fisticuffs between residents. Conditions are sometimes unsanitary, he said. "We have a lot of gnats or fruit flies or something in our room," Salgado said.

Department of Human Services officials, who manage the shelter, attributed the crowding to record unemployment, now 12 percent in the District; a sharp rise in evictions; and record low temperatures and snowfall. The city has issued 99 hypothermia alerts thus far in the Nov. 1 to March 31 hypothermia season, compared with 92 during the season last year. Alerts are issued when the temperature and wind chill dip below freezing.

Advocates for the homeless had warned city officials as early as July that they could be facing a crisis this winter. Attorneys for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless told city officials at public hearings and D.C. Council committee meetings on winter emergency shelter that hundreds of families were on housing waiting lists.

At the time, one of the attorneys, Nassim Moshiree, dismissed the city's plan to add 25 winter rooms to the 75 provided year-round at the shelter, saying the increase wouldn't be nearly enough. The city didn't add more rooms until January, two months into the season, when it reopened a substance abuse detoxification unit that was closed last year.

The legal clinic's executive director, Patricia Mullahy Fugere, declined to discuss conditions at the shelter, fearing that her comments would hurt efforts to relieve crowding at D.C. General by next week.

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), chairman of the Human Services Committee, said D.C. General "is clearly not where we want families to live." But with fewer federal dollars for human services, the city doesn't have the resources to house families elsewhere during the hypothermia season.

In 2007, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) closed D.C. Village, a shelter for homeless families, citing many of the conditions that now plague the D.C. General shelter.

Some residents interviewed outside the shelter by The Washington Post this week complained of mildew in shower stalls, small swarms of fruit flies and roaches, and paint chips flaking from the walls onto beds.

Other residents complimented the shelter's staff on their work to keep the shelter clean, saying that shelter living is going to have problems and that some residents don't work hard enough with their case managers to find other places to live.

Nearly all of the residents were critical of the overcrowding. About 100 families live on three floors of the main building, and 35 families live in the former detox unit about 800 yards away. On the second floor, 15 families, women and children, were living in a common area and sleeping on cots, as opposed to living in former hospital rooms and sleeping on beds. But even that wasn't enough to ease the overflow.

Maurice Jones, who said he was a 22-year-old father, said conditions were "noisy and chaotic" on the fourth floor, where he had been living. He said his 2-year-old son, Kyrice, had to be taken to a hospital after breathing mold and mildew. "He got black rings around his eyes from breathing mold. I feel it's filthy," said Jones, whose family has been moved to other housing. Alternative housing includes short-term apartments paid for through federal programs or with federal stimulus money.

City officials said the child had a preexisting allergy that required attention, and they denied that he was hospitalized because of conditions at the shelter. They also said there is no mildew or mold in the showers. Residents describe the fourth floor as chaotic because that is where administrators take in new residents, the officials said. It also includes a resident activity room and the Hoya Clinic, which is run by the Georgetown University Medical Center and provides medical treatment to between five and 20 people a day.

"They clean the bathrooms and hallways every two hours," said Dana Wallace, 24, who has lived at the shelter with her 7-month-old daughter for three months. "Personally, I don't have any bugs or anything like that in my room."

She added: "It's overcrowded, but I don't understand how people say certain things. . . . I'm grateful that I have somewhere to lay my head. If people really feel that it's so bad, they should leave. It's not that bad a place."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company