For more than two years, Brian Marr has slept on a tattered bunk bed in a shelter at the former Randall Junior High School in Southwest as he struggles to conquer a crack cocaine habit.
But as the cold season begins next month, Marr and dozens of men who regularly frequent the shelter will have to find new accommodations. The city is completing plans to sell Randall to the Corcoran Museum of Art and College of Art and Design, and the 130-bed emergency shelter is scheduled to close Nov. 3.
"It's ugly. They're going to displace more than 100 brothers," said Marr, 32, as a handful of men lounged on a recent morning in the bedraggled plaza outside the school building at 65 I Street SW. "You don't know where you're going to be. You don't know where you're going to take that next step."
Advocates for the homeless criticized the timing of Randall's closing, saying it would force the homeless to seek new shelter in unfamiliar neighborhoods as much as three miles away at a time when temperatures are falling. But the advocates also glean a larger message from the closing, saying that it reflects what they characterized as the District's continuing effort to push the needy away from downtown as real estate values in the central part of the city rise.
"There's a trend to put the homeless on the fringes of the city. It's part of the plan to remove the people from the landscape of a city on the rise," said Mary Ann Luby, an organizer for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. "It's the clash between culture and people, the clash between economic and human development."
But to Lynn French, a senior adviser on homeless policy to Mayor Anthony Williams (D), Randall is not a solution. She described the shelter's physical condition as "deplorable" and said a new 150-bed shelter on the campus of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast will provide mental heath and drug abuse counseling. District officials said they plan to have the new shelter open by the time Randall closes. The city is also expanding an existing New York Avenue NE shelter by 120 beds.
As for the timing of the closing, French said the city would face criticism no matter what date it chose. As it is, she said, in early November the weather is still relatively warm.
"Change is difficult for everyone," French said.
District officials began using Randall as a shelter during a bitter cold spell in January 1988, after the D.C. Council passed emergency legislation authorizing the use of certain public buildings for the homeless, including the ground floor of the District Building. At the time, Randall was being used to house government offices.
In addition to being an emergency shelter, Randall has designated 40 beds for homeless men enrolled in a program that provides counseling and help in finding jobs and new homes. Several men in the program said that they are apprehensive over the uncertainty, adding that they don't want to have to move to shelters in neighborhoods that are farther away from downtown.
"This is tough for people like us, who are trying to get our lives together," said William Murphy, 37, who came to the shelter after arriving from the Bronx a month ago, fighting a cocaine addiction. "Where are we going? What's next?"
The proposal to sell Randall to the Corcoran for $6.2 million, a sale that needs council approval, came as the museum unveiled plans this year to build a new wing at 17th Street and New York Avenue NW. The D.C. Council voted over the summer to grant the museum a $40 million subsidy for the construction, which would be paid back with tax revenue from hotels, restaurants and other downtown attractions.
Corcoran officials say they will start using Randall as a temporary home for the museum's administrators while the new building is under construction, beginning in June 2006. Randall would also become the new location for the Corcoran's college. "We consider this a permanent investment for the Corcoran institution and a cultural investment in the community," said Margaret Bergen, the Corcoran's chief communications officer. "We want to reach out to the community of Southwest."
Randall has also been the headquarters of the Millennium Arts Center, a home for studio artists and nonprofit organizations that has leased the site since 2000. After a legal dispute with the District over back rent, the center's founder, Bill Wooby, moved Millennium from the property at the end of July, although some of the 34 artists who maintain studios there hope to remain once the Corcoran takes over.
"Speaking for myself, the general sense is that we would have preferred a maintenance of the status quo," said Richard Dana, 51, a painter who has had a studio at Randall for three years. "There's a bit of apprehension about a big, large administrative entity coming in. On the other hand, being here with the Corcoran could be a great experience."
Bergen said that the Corcoran hopes to maintain the studios for the artists now based at Randall, although she cautioned that no commitment can be made until after the museum takes possession of the property. "We would love to see what accommodations we can make for them," she said.
District officials tout the Corcoran's investment as a potential trigger for economic development in a neighborhood that's now home to the Department of Motor Vehicles inspection station and many units of low- and moderate-income housing. Randall is about a half-mile from the largely industrial site where the District hopes to build a new baseball stadium.
Margaret Feldman, a member of the Southwest Neighborhood Assembly, said community leaders are pleased that the shelter is closing. "It looks bad, it's untidy, it doesn't create a wholesome neighborhood," she said.
But she also said she's concerned about what the men who live there will do next. "I hope there's somewhere else for them to go," she said.
The closing of Randall eliminates a downtown shelter less than a year after the Gales shelter, which provided 150 beds, shut down at 65 Massachusetts NW. The Franklin School Shelter, a 160-bed facility at 13th and K streets, is slated to close next year.
"It's a bit of a pattern, having shelters that are more centrally located close down," said T.J. Sutcliffe, executive director of So Others Might Eat, a homeless advocacy group. "When you look at location, they're not in the downtown area; they're further out."
Sutcliffe said the District should not only replace Randall with an equivalent facility in Southwest but also add another shelter downtown when Franklin closes. "The administration has to look at providing shelter for folks in all parts of the city, including the downtown and Southwest," she said.
French said that the city is seeking a new site for a downtown men's shelter, but that the search has become arduous as real estate values have risen. Referring to existing downtown shelters, French said: "Many were first assembled when no one was using the buildings. They got it at the point when the city was broke and broken."
French said the District is seeking to create a new shelter in Southwest, although it will not be a 12-hour emergency shelter like Randall. It will be what she described as "supportive housing," in which homeless people stay for a longer period and receive mental health and drug counseling.
Referring to Randall, she said, "We don't think that kind of place serves a good purpose. What we have now, you line up and fall into bed. There's not even a place for your belongings."
But homeless advocates said that Randall, for better or worse, is a place to which the men have formed an attachment, which makes it more likely that they will come in off the street when temperatures fall.
"It's a constant and stable routine," Luby said. Closing the shelter "increases the potential for men who always come in to not come in. It takes them out of the neighborhood. We're a neighborhood-bound people, and people who are homeless are no different."
Outside the shelter on a recent morning, several men said they had become accustomed to staying at Randall and were familiar with the meal schedules of churches in the neighborhood.
Clyde Gant, 60, an Army veteran who said he has been staying at the shelter for six months, called the decision to close the shelter "insensitive" on the part of the mayor. "He doesn't care about us," Gant said.
He said that he was not sure where he'll go, but that he's resigned to leaving. "It's time to move on," he said.
Wilton Dwayne Perry are among those waiting for one of the Randall shelter's 130 beds. The shelter, at 65 I Street SW, is scheduled to close Nov. 3.Brian Marr, right, shown waiting outside the old Randall school, says, "You don't know where you're going to be. You don't know where you're going to take that next step." Below, a rendering of a new Corcoran building at 17th Street and New York Avenue NW. The Corcoran is putting administrative offices in the Randall building during construction of the new gallery wing and will eventually locate its college there.