Bilingual D.C. homeless shelter to close

By Nathan Rott
The Washington Post
Saturday, October 2, 2010; 6:29 PM

La Casa Homeless Shelter, one of the District's few bilingual shelters and one of the last remaining shelters in Northwest Washington, will close its doors this month to make way for a new condominium and retail complex.

In recent weeks, more than half of the men who regularly slept at La Casa were moved into apartments elsewhere in the city, and the rest are expected to move by Oct. 15, said Laura Zeilinger, who oversees homeless operations for the city's Department of Human Services.

Although no groundbreaking date has been set by Donatelli & Klein, the development company that bought the land on which La Casa sits, the city ordered the shelter to close because officials wanted the 70 men who were sleeping there - about a third of them Hispanic - to be settled in more permanent housing before hypothermia season begins Nov. 1.

The property is in rapidly developing Columbia Heights, where many restaurants, pubs and chain stores have opened for business in recent years. The neighborhood has been a focus of city redevelopment efforts.

Donatelli has agreed to return a small parcel of the property so the city can build housing for the homeless, but no concrete plans have been made to begin construction.

Meanwhile, the loss of La Casa, a compound made up of fenced-in trailers and a squat brick building, means city officials will have 90 fewer beds for the city's homeless population this winter.

According to the District's annual homeless count in January, the city had about 6,600 homeless people, a 5 percent increase from the year before. Officials expect that number to increase this winter.

But the La Casa shelter is mourned by few, including many who frequented it.

"It's dirty and filthy," Charles David Hamit said of the La Casa building he called home from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. for the past eight years.

Faded murals on the building's east side are in the shadow of a high-rise, glass-and-stucco apartment building next door. That building, erected by Donatelli, offers a preview of the one that will replace La Casa.

The shelter's residents notice how the neighborhood is changing, and they recognize that a homeless shelter doesn't fit the new model.

Every morning, Hamit, 55, walks the block and a half to Sacred Heart Church and a free breakfast. After he leaves La Casa's open chain-link gates, he weaves through waves of commuters hustling to the nearby Columbia Heights Metro stop. He passes Lincoln Middle School, Bell Senior High School and Powell Recreation Center.

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