The District of Columbia, which last year pledged that the city's residents would not be allowed to live in unsafe places after a fire killed 10 elderly women in a group home, is now operating a hotel for the homeless that does not meet the city's fire safety regulations.
The Parkside Hotel, 1336 I St. NW, houses 250 men, women and children who otherwise have no home. But the 10-story, red brick building does not have two "fully enclosed" staircases for fire exits as required by city law -- a fact that was not discovered until a recent court case was heard. c
The main staircase in the 61-year-old building wraps around an elevator shaft. Residents fleeing a fire would have to open a door on each floor, go past the elevator and open another door to continue downstairs, building consultant Don Humphrey testified in the court case. As result, lawyers for some of the city's homeless succeeded in blocking the city from closing its Hartford Street Shelter and moving the families to the Parkside.
Humphrey also said that the building's enclosed fire tower, a steep back staircase at the Parkside with steps just wide enough for one person at a time, may be too narrow to allow escaping residents to pass around doors that open into the staircase on every floor.
"Before anybody can get down them steps some of these kids are going to get stomped," one young Parkside resident said in a recent interview.
In more formal language, U.S. District Court Judge Louis F. Oberdorfer basically agreed with that contention when he blocked the city from closing the Hartford Street facility. He said those opposing the move to Parkside "presented substantial evidence that there existed serious fire hazards . . . at the Parkside family shelter."
Oberdorfer said the city official "responsible for the decision to close the Hartford Shelter did not consider whether there was any serious fire hazard at the Parkside beyond a determination that (it) held a valid certificate of occupancy and her casual observation of the premises . . ."
Audrey Rowe, the city's commissioner of social services and the official mentioned in Oberdorfer's opinion, had contended that the building was legitimately occupied because it had the certificate of occupancy.
"My only question was, do we have the right papers, licenses, permits, etc.?" she said.
A certificate of occupancy, required with every change of ownership, was conveyed with the building in May 1979, when the building was sold to a group headed by Washington realtor and developer Jeffrey N. Cohen, a political associate of Mayor Marion Barry.
Normally, the certificate can only be issued after a building passes the inspection of at least four different inspecting authorities, including a building inspector.
But Nelson Lewis, who coordinates the inspection process for the city, conceded that the building probably had not had a full building inspection since 1964, but was allowed to hold a certificate of occupancy because enforcement of fire safety regulations in the buildings built before 1946 has been less strict over the years.
"This office didn't catch up to [inspecting the Parkside] until the court case," Lewis said. "If the inspectors had kept after them we would have known sooner."
Rowe said she still intends to fight to complete the consolidation of the city's shelter facilities, now located on Hartford Street SE and P Street Nw, to Parkside, and will work with Cohen to correct the fire safety violations. A fire escape, which Cohen says will cost $50,000, will solve the probems, according to city officials.
The Parkside has been operated as a shelter since last Oct. 1. It was intended to be a short-stay facility fordisplaced families, but the shortage of housing for the working poor and welfaredependents has dictated stays ranging from 30 to 120 days for most residents.
The Parkside was purchase by Cohen on May 2, 1979, for $900,000, three times what the previous owner had paid in 1977. Cohen said his plan was either to convert the hotel into an office building or buy the remaining properties on 14th Street between H and I streets and replace them with a new, more profitable structure.
However, he said he was unable to buyenough of the properties and so signed a $507,000 annual contract to runthe building for the city.
"It seemed like the most logical way to hold the property," said Cohen. He said he still plans to develop the building for office space.
Despite the city's claim that it willsave money by consolidating at the Parkside, the city's own figures progect that the shelter program would cost $612,000 this year without consolidation, as opposed to $681,000 at Parkside, includingf the cost for food now supplied by an outside contractor. The city justifies the move as cost effective because of the greater capa-city of the Parkside facility.
Even with the guaranteed 100 percent occupancy and the lower turnover of residents than at a hotel, Cohen said the Parkside operation is barely solvent because of the damage done to the building by its residents.
"The place is geting torn up," he said. "There are over 100 kids in there."
Cohen's property manager, Bill Wolfe, said that Cohen has spent more than $13,000 to correct numerous minor and not-so-minor fire safety violations, including the installation of a new smoke alarm system and the constant recharging of the building's fire extinguishers that he said young residents empty.
The $507,000 contract states that Cohen's Parkside Plaza Associates will provide "a pleasant, emotionally inviting and safe atmosphere in the shelter" and that "guests will be treated courteously at all times."
Interviews with more than a dozen families at the Parkside indicate that the reality is something different. Many Parkside families complain of untoward treatment from the staff, inhumane living conditions and prison-like rules.
At a recent meeting a group of shelter mothers discussed joining the court suit, which is being widened to a direct attack on conditions at the Parkside, and vented their feelings as well.
One woman asked, "Can somebody tell me why they're trying to close down the Hartford Street Shelter? I've lived there and as far as I'm concerned it is 100 percent better [than the Parkside] -- those people there knew how to treat you."
The Parkside staff members "have gotto learn how to deal with people." said another woman of the hotel and Department of Human Services staff there, ". . . and not treat you like youjust came out of a sewer or something." t
The talk shifted to Parkside's hot rooms with screenless windows, no televisions, no drinking water, restlesskids and single parents trying to cope. t
"If it's raining we got to sit shut up in rooms like dogs. You can't go out in the hallway and you can't go in the lobby. What are you supposed to do?" asked another woman. $"I'm sleeping on one rollaway bed withtwo kids and the ceiling is falling down," said Seneda Campbell, who has been in the Parkside for about two weeks.
"Yeah, and they moved me to another room that's full of roaches," said another woman.
"Amen to the roaches," agreed a third.
The mothers also complained that the Parkside's location, just around the corner from the heart of the 14th Street pornography and prostitution corridor, is undesirable for children who must remain outside while their parents work or look for housing.
As owner Cohen put it, "It's not the kind of neighborhood I'd want my kids playing in."