During more than two and a half hours of emotional debate about the proposal for a year-round homeless shelter in what is now a commercial office building, the neighboring condo owners wanted Arlington County County Board to know that they are not anti-homeless.
“We do support a [new] homeless shelter, but this property is seriously flawed,” said Patricia Yeh, who lives in the Woodbury Heights complex, and like her neighbors, objected to how county staff planned for the purchase and how it notified her. “If you choose to adopt this, you’ll be sending the message that ‘the Arlington Way’ is synonomous with government arrogance, government overreach and government incompetence.”
Nevertheless, County Board members voted unanimously at 12:45 a.m. Wednesday to authorize manager Barbara Donnellan to make a $25.5 million offer to buy the Thomas building at 2020 14th Street North, or start eminent domain proceedings to acquire it. The building, in the high-rise, high-rent Courthouse neighborhood, is a “strategic acquisition” that will let the county expand its offices and provide more services to the homeless than the current emergency winter shelter does.
Supporters of the purchase included several formerly homeless people, who attested to the importance of having a place to go off the streets with staff who show them how to get social services. Opponents said there are better places for the shelter than on some of the most expensive real estate in the county, adjacent to a condo that houses many single women, elderly and children who walk to the Metro at all hours of the day and night. Several registered sex offenders use the shelter as their address, opponents added, while supporters pointed out that it’s across the street from the police headquarters.
Among the most moving of the 55 speakers was Michele Gallo, a Woodbury Heights resident, who said she had been attacked by a homeless person in her youth, and has twice chosen to move out of neighborhoods because she did not feel secure.
“Now, 30 feet from my doorstop, you put a homeless shelter with registered sex offenders?” she said, sobbing. “I am tired of being a victim. I am tired of being driven from my homes.”
Closely following her was Rev. Richard Cobb, pastor of Central United Methodist Church, who sympathized with the nearby residents because when he arrived at the church several years ago, homeless people stole his church banners for ground cloths and congregated near the church entrance. When the Arlington Street Peoples’ Action Network (ASPAN) wanted to set up a drop-in center at his church “it was the worst thing in the world. I thought the devil had come to get me,” he said.
But the nonprofit agency, which runs Arlington’s emergency winter shelter, enforced its rules on behavior for those who used the drop-in center. Litter disappeared. The church banners stayed in place. The church’s day care center continued to operate without problems and nearby residents had no objections.
“What you’re hearing are fears and worries,” Cobb said. “I am not talking fears, I am talking reality.”
The winter shelter, now located two blocks away, has been considered temporary for 20 years, and is physically inadequate, county staff said. If the county buys the Thomas building, a two-floor renovation will provide an all-year shelter with access for disabled persons, and the county will also be able to offer comprehensive services to help the homeless transition to more permanent housing.
Most of the 20 or so office tenants would be allowed to stay for the term of their leases, county manager Donnellan said. The ground-floor retail establishments would be encouraged to stay, as well.
Using the second and third floor space for a shelter requires a special-use permit, and board members promised to work closely with local residents in drafting that permit to alleviate their concerns about safety. ASPAN officials also vowed to work with residents and offered a seat on their board to one.