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Social services with nowhere else to go end up at D.C. General complex

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By Nathan Rott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 30, 2010; 10:59 PM

Michael Poindexter's first memory of D.C. General Hospital is the waiting. For hours, he and his family sat in the "crazy waiting room," holding out for a doctor to check on his little brother, who had swallowed a tooth. That was in the late 1970s, when Poindexter was in elementary school and the hospital saw thousands of patients a month.

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Poindexter and his family relied on the much-maligned but affordable hospital in Southeast Washington for the benign, such as the swallowed tooth, and the traumatic, such as when Poindexter was stabbed and when he was shot.

He'd rather have gone to any other hospital, he said, but for many Washingtonians who lacked money or insurance, D.C. General was not merely the city's hospital of last resort, it was the hospital of only resort. "We had nowhere else to go," Poindexter said.

Nearly a decade after the hospital closed, people with nowhere else to go still end up on the 67-acre campus of what was once the city's only full-service public hospital. Today D.C. General - located near the Anacostia River between Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium and Congressional Cemetery - is "a dumping ground for services that other people don't want," said D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6).

Within the complex's rusted fences are the city's jail, its correctional treatment facility and a halfway house; the medical examiner's office and the morgue; a warehouse and a boiler plant; methadone, STD, detox and tuberculosis clinics; an emergency psychiatric treatment center; and a 100-bed women's shelter and the District's largest shelter for homeless families, which holds up to 135 families and 100 single men in the coldest months.

Last winter, the city's unwanted snow was hauled to the campus parking lots and dumped in massive mounds.

At D.C. General, Poindexter is still waiting, this time for a permanent home.

Thirty-nine years after he was born in the hospital's obstetrics unit, 21 years after watching his mother die in its intensive-care unit, Poindexter and his three children last summer moved into the Family Emergency Shelter in the decaying old hospital building.

Their bedroom, inpatient Room 509, is packed with four dorm-style beds and three wooden dressers. Their dining room is the old cafeteria. Their entryway is a long, dimly lit tiled hall lined with locked doors labeled "Fracture Room," "Cast Change Room," and "X-Ray."

Every time he walks in, he gets depressed, Poindexter said. "They closed this place down for a reason," he said, waving his hand at the sprawling parking lots, run-down brick buildings and the grassy tracts that have become his front yard. "If they wasn't going to tear it down, leave it closed. Turning it into a shelter is like going backwards."

Bleak history

It's hard to describe the decay of D.C. General as a fall from grace because that would indicate that it once possessed some.

The Washington Infirmary, the first incarnation of D.C. General, was established with a congressional appropriation of $2,000 in 1806. It offered free health care to the city's poor at a downtown location near today's convention center. In 1843, it was renamed Washington Asylum Hospital and moved to its current location, then an isolated section of farmland on the western shore of the Anacostia.


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