Residents of Southeast Washington, angered by plans to relocate hundreds of the city's homeless to a renovated federal shelter in Anacostia, accused federal officials and social workers yesterday of using their community as "a dumping ground" for the homeless problem.
A news conference at the facility, which the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless intends to open as a shelter later this month, turned into an acrimonious confrontation with about a dozen area residents and community leaders, who complained that they were never consulted about the plans.
"We feel that we have our share of people who need help. We are overloaded," said Frieda Murray, vice chairwoman of a local advisory neighborhood commission. "I can see why the federal government wants them over here: out of sight, out of mind."
Coalition members countered that they did not select the Anacostia site and learned of the selection only late last week. But coalition board member Lawrence Guyot, in one heated exchange with the group, added that local residents have little influence over the federal site.
"This is federal property," Guyot said. "If anyone thinks they can move us, we dare them to try."
The planned shelter at 1900 Anacostia Dr. SE, formerly a Defense Department war college, most recently used as the 1985 inaugural committee headquarters and located in an isolated area near the foot of the Douglass Bridge, is the latest development in a protracted dispute between government officials and homeless advocates over where the homeless should be housed.
A federal judge recently agreed to allow the closing of the largest homeless shelter in the city, an 800-bed facility operated by the Community for Creative Non-Violence at 425 Second St. NW. Federal officials have declared the dilapidated structure unfit for habitation and plan to tear it down instead of repairing it, over the objections of the CCNV.
Officials at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have started renovating the old war college and have given $3.7 million to the Coalition for the Homeless to operate the shelter for 600 people until next spring.
The closing has been appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals.
Officials said they will use special buses to transport homeless people to the new shelter from downtown. And the coalition, which is locked in a bitter struggle with CCNV leader Mitch Snyder over leadership on the homeless issue, has promised to provide people who stay there with psychological and job counseling as well as with beds and meals on a 24-hour basis.
Coalition officials maintained that the new shelter -- which appeared to be in solid condition as workers yesterday began its remodeling -- will be dismantled next April and the homeless relocated again to several smaller and as yet undisclosed new facilities around the city.
But to many Anacostia residents, the uncertainty over where the homeless will go next year, as well as the abrupt decision to house them at the old war college, only adds to a sense that the community is being used to remove the homeless problem from the city's mainstream.
"This is not only unfair and insensitive to local residents and homeowners, it is also callous, shortsighted and insulting," said City Council member Nadine P. Winter (D-Ward 6) in a statement released Friday.
"I am a longtime advocate of the rights of the poor and the homeless," Winter said, "but this 'out of sight, out of mind' approach to an ongoing problem is absurd."
Community residents who attended yesterday's news conference said they are concerned that the homeless will become a permanent fixture of Anacostia once they are located there and will exacerbate problems associated with street crime and the area's joblessness.
"They're going to wander to the nearest neighborhood, which is our neighborhood," said Bernard Gray, a local lawyer. "I just don't see it as a very useful program. We've already got enough people standing around now."
"There are problems that members of this community are screaming about getting solutions to now," said James Bennett, 45, an antique furniture restorer who lives in Anacostia's historic district. "Let's solve Anacostia's problems first before we start dumping more problems here."
Coalition President Elisabeth Huguenin said social workers at the shelter will encourage residents to enroll in service programs once their needs have been assessed. The coalition will bus homeless people to Southeast when the downtown shelter closes, and then will offer daily bus service between Anacostia and the center city.
Huguenin, who maintains that many of the homeless suffer from mental disorders, said the bus service will deliver residents to jobs or social service programs around the city, but she conceded that residents cannot be prevented from going their own way.
"We are not going to just let people vegetate and sit," she said. "We are going to try and rehabilitate them and return them to the mainstream."