John Staten's mornings start out the same. He awakes in a bunk bed before 7 a.m. in a room shared with 16 other men at the Emery House shelter on Lincoln Road in the Eckington section of Northeast. An announcement over a loudspeaker reminds him he can't leave any of his belongings behind.
Staten, 57, packs a brush, a comb, toothpaste, a razor, shaving cream, lotion, reading glasses and some light reading into a small backpack. He folds two pairs of pants and shirts as flat as possible and, ignoring the reminder, tucks them under his mattress. Then he takes the rest of his belongings and heads out of the 180-bed emergency shelter for homeless men.
Staten, who works part time at a local carpenters union, has lived in the shelter for the past month. Packing up daily is the hardest part, he said. "That's when you really feel homeless, carrying your things every day."
Beginning Sept. 1, change will come for Staten and his fellow residents. Emery Shelter will no longer allow homeless men to stay nights, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Instead, it will be a transitional shelter exclusively for homeless men with full-time jobs, an expansion of the shelter's existing 40-bed transition program for men who are working.
District officials have a self-imposed deadline to end homelessness in 10 years, and to meet that goal, they are closely examining their population of homeless people and the myriad services needed to move them out of shelters. Delivering services is a nuanced task, as even among the homeless there are socioeconomic differences. Some work $8-an-hour jobs every day; others wander the streets until they can return to the shelter at night. A one-day snapshot study in January showed that about 44 percent of the city's homeless men and women were employed.
There is another dimension to the change at Emery Shelter, which perhaps mirrors the larger changes in Eckington. Century-old, three-level Victorian-style homes now sell for a half-million dollars. A new Metro station within walking distance continues to spur development in the area.
Recent efforts by the Eckington Civic Association to move or close the shelter are the latest developments in a decades-old controversy surrounding it. The association has lobbied city officials to take action on the shelter because neighbors fear it attracts drugs and prostitution and is unsafe for children who attend the Matthew G. Emery Elementary School, which abuts the shelter. Liquor bottles and human feces have been found on the school playground, said Ted McGinn, chairman of the school's restructuring team.
City officials said the shelter is the only one in the District that is located alongside a public school.
Lynn C. French, senior adviser to Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) on homeless policy, said the city had to strike a difficult balance between being responsive to residents' concerns and serving the homeless. As a compromise, city officials decided to change Emery to an "employment shelter," the first shelter in the District exclusively for homeless men with jobs.
Under the new arrangement, 100 men will live dormitory style, about 15 to a room. They will have to show proof of employment and submit to random urine screenings. The men will have lockers in which to store their belongings, and counselors will lead the men through a six-month structured program to get them out of the shelter and into a more secure place to live.
The shelter is still working out the criteria for the new program, including whether it will accept men with part-time jobs, said Ed Franklin, the shelter manager. The unemployed will be absorbed into the existing emergency shelters on New York Avenue NE in Ivy City and on the campus of St. Elizabeths hospital in Anacostia, French said.
According to the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, the nonprofit organization that coordinates the city's homeless services, about 8,100 single men and women stayed in emergency shelters last year, and about 3,550 of them were employed in some way. The nonprofit group does not break out homeless employment data by gender.
Among the working homeless, it would be rare to find someone who makes more than $14,000 a year, said J. Stephen Cleghorn, the partnership's deputy director. Minimum-wage hotel or security jobs are common, while the cost of rental housing for a one- or two-bedroom apartment ranges from $800 to $1,100 a month.
"These folks they see going in and out of [a shelter], four out of 10 are going to a job, and yet they're living in a homeless shelter," Cleghorn said.
Emery opened in 1986 as a temporary shelter for 115 women in the old Emery Elementary School. Longtime residents of Eckington remember the public protest that attracted television news crews. Residents were outraged that they were not told of the shelter until after the women had moved in.
Famed homeless advocate Mitch Snyder said at the time that the women would be housed there temporarily until renovations were completed at the Community for Creative Non-Violence, at Second and D streets NW.
Today the two-story building is announced as a shelter by a white sign painted with blue letters. On a recent afternoon, the sounds of go-go music permeated the summer air as children walked by, while other youngsters lounged by an outdoor public pool.
Inside, James Walker, 32, spoke in reverent tones about the controversial shelter. Walker left Woodrow Wilson High School in 11th grade and sold drugs instead of punching a clock or attending college. After serving time in prison and living with a girlfriend, he arrived at Emery four months ago. He said the counselors have helped him with his marijuana addiction and encouraged him to stay the course with his food services job until he can save enough rent money for an apartment.
"I was determined to change my life around," he said. "If you really wanted to work, you could find a job somewhere."
In the neighborhood, sentiment varies; some welcome the shelter's transition, while others will not be satisfied until the shelter is gone. The issue has been debated for years, but some residents credit Eartha Isaac, president of the Eckington Civic Association, with bringing renewed urgency to the effort since taking over the leadership of the group in January 2004.
Isaac, 53, had lived in several wards of the city when she moved to the 100 block of R Street NE in 2001. She wanted a place near public transportation and was well aware that the New York Avenue Metro stop was planned. She paid $205,000 for a two-story row house and got involved in the community association. When she moved in, Isaac said, she wasn't aware of the shelter.
Isaac said that in late 2003, an association member found in police department records that convicted sex offenders had used the 1700 block of Lincoln Road NE, where the shelter is located, as their address. French, the city homeless policy adviser, said it has not been proved that sex offenders were living at the shelter.
Isaac said she grew concerned, given the school's location next to the shelter, and began writing letters to Neil O. Albert, deputy mayor for children, youth, families and elders, and D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5). This spring, Orange, Isaac and several other neighbors toured the neighborhood, where residents pointed out trash and other problems they believe are connected to the shelter.
"We haven't said we don't want homeless people in the neighborhood -- people need a place to live," Isaac said. "The issue is, let's have an attitude that goes beyond, 'This is where I sleep and get some free meals.' This is, after all, a community where people are living, and part of being a community is that you are helping it become stable and vibrant. You don't trash the place."
Isaac said she views the impending changes to the shelter as an important step on the road to permanent closure. But she added she was skeptical of the city's plans because the association had not seen anything in writing.
The controversy has raised uncomfortable questions about neighborhood gentrification. Stephen L. White paid $489,000 for a 100-year-old Victorian row house that he and his fiancee adored at first sight. In February, they moved in. His fiancee can walk to work at Union Station. At the same time, "we knew it was not the perfect location, but we can't afford to live in Cleveland Park or Woodley Park," White said. Properties in the neighborhood were being renovated, so it looked like things were moving in the right direction, White said.
After they unpacked, he said, his fiancee noticed people selling drugs. White also said he does not like the loitering outside the shelter or the detectable smell of marijuana on the occasions he has walked by.
"But I'm not in favor of kicking people out. It's not realistic and it's not the Christian thing to do," White said. "But I think everyone deserves to live in a clean and safe neighborhood, no matter the color of their skin or how much money they make."
Mary Ann Luby, outreach coordinator for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said she believes that the homeless have a right to live safely. The New York Avenue shelter and the shelter in Southeast are both miles away from downtown, and Luby worries about homeless people with layers of problems -- drugs, mental illness or a physical disability -- having to cope with the added challenge of navigating transportation.
"The shelter is getting blamed for all the social ills of that neighborhood," Luby said. "I don't think it's a good setting, right next to a school." But the controversy, she added, suggests an attitude of " 'We don't want to have these people in our neighborhood.' "