The District and the American Red Cross are aiming to shut the D.C. Armory shelter for Hurricane Katrina evacuees by mid-October, with the goal of placing storm survivors into permanent housing or hotels by then.
"That's our hope -- no longer than October 14," said Philip B. Terry, executive director of the D.C. office of the Red Cross.
Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency told D.C. officials to prepare to receive more evacuees if Hurricane Rita, which is predicted to make landfall tonight or tomorrow in Louisiana and Texas, displaces more people. But City Administrator Robert C. Bobb said that even if that displacement occurred, the armory would cease operating as a shelter by the middle of next month.
"We're hoping that any potential influx of evacuees that we get would be temporary and we would try to get people returned home as quickly as possible," Bobb said.
The armory can house as many as 400 additional evacuees if needed, said Barbara Childs-Pair, director of the D.C. Emergency Management Agency. She said she spoke with FEMA twice this week about possibly accommodating more evacuees.
The population at the armory has decreased steadily from 250 when the shelter opened Sept. 6. Officials initially reported that 295 people from New Orleans had arrived by airlift but later changed that count to 250.
According to the most recent Red Cross count, 97 people were at the shelter yesterday -- the first time the population has been below 100. At first, the numbers dwindled as evacuees reunited with family members across the country or found friends and relatives in the Washington region.
Since then, other evacuees have decided to stay in the region and have moved into apartments in the District, Maryland and Virginia. The Red Cross also has placed some evacuees in hotels and is prepared to pay for their accommodations for up to 58 days.
As the shelter's population has dwindled, the issues facing evacuees are becoming more apparent. According to a daily report on shelter operations, shelter officials found a used syringe in a bathroom this week and said some evacuees who had checked out of the armory returned for the free meals.
At Mount Sinai Baptist Church yesterday in Northwest -- where the North Capital Collaborative, a neighborhood-based social services group, brought nonprofit organizations and concerned residents together to learn more about the armory population and how they could assist -- officials talked about the difficulties some shelter residents might encounter as they put down roots in the area.
Rufus Mayfield, a Department of Human Services employee who has been working at the armory, said he has seen success stories of people finding jobs and moving into housing. On the other hand, he was working to help one woman when he found out she had spent her FEMA disaster-assistance money on drugs.
"They're bringing a lot of social dysfunction with them that we are going to have to deal with," Mayfield told the group.
D.C. and Red Cross officials have created a transition plan detailing how evacuees will be assisted once they leave the shelter, Childs-Pair said. For example, the plan calls for tracking school enrollment for children; making site visits to check on family life; and working with the city employment agency for job referrals and placement.
By Monday, the city plans to open a drop-in center for disaster assistance at D.C. General Hospital, staffed by city agencies and offering similar services to the armory but without the shelter. The center plans to be open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., but those hours could change depending on demand. Storm survivors could receive assistance at the center or be referred elsewhere for help, she said.
David Harold, 51, of New Orleans had been undecided for weeks about staying in the District and had resisted applying for services. But Harold, who worked in a New Orleans cafeteria but was receiving unemployment when Katrina hit, decided yesterday to stay in the District awhile.
"I have to go back," he said. "But I'd like to live here until it's time to go."