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D.C. opens new housing for homeless, named for a Kennedy, as clearing nears

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser helps cut the ribbon Monday to celebrate the opening of the Ethel, an apartment building with permanent supportive housing, in Southeast D.C. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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District leaders Monday cut the ribbon on a new 100-unit apartment building that will offer permanent supportive living for the city’s homeless, two days before the National Park Service plans to clear a large tent encampment in McPherson Square at D.C.’s request.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and former Maryland lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D), as well as other local dignitaries and officials, celebrated the opening in Southeast on Monday morning of the Ethel, a residential building for voucher holders located on C Street SE. In addition to housing, residents will receive intensive case management and job training on-site, Bowser said.

The building — named for Ethel Kennedy, the longtime D.C.-area philanthropist, widow of Robert F. Kennedy and mother of Kennedy Townsend — is located near RFK Stadium. Bowser touted it as “something truly special: a building where 100 percent of the units are affordable and reserved for our residents who need housing the most.”

“We believe that we should have affordable housing in every part of our city,” Bowser said. “Here, we’re close to amenities for food, great schools, great recreation and the Metro. This is a great place to live.”

Laura Zeilinger, director of the Department of Human Services, said during the event that nearly all the apartments at the Ethel were already matched with voucher holders. Two people who have been living at McPherson Square will soon move into the building, she said.

Kennedy Townsend read a letter from her mother, who was not in attendance, during the event.

“The residents of the Ethel will have the opportunity to learn valuable skills, whether it be at a beauty salon, in the kitchens, at the computer lab or when using the learning center. They will be able to create their future,” she said.

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Drifting near the folding chairs for press and dignitaries before the public event, Elizabeth Everhart, 38, said she was curious about the building. For the past 14 months, she has been living at the nearby Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter. “It’s really difficult living with 10 other women in a unit and living yourself out of a little trunk,” she said.

Everhart said she has applied for a housing voucher but is still waiting to hear about her application. “You just kind of throw it in the system,” she said.

When asked about recent reports on staffing issues, District leaders said the Ethel would be sufficiently staffed but acknowledged Monday that a shortage of case managers and other staff in the city is creating a backlog in the effort to find housing for unsheltered people. Officials have cited a national shortage of such workers — who connect the city’s homeless with resources such as the voucher program — as a reason the city has not been able to connect more of the encampment dwellers in McPherson Square with housing.

Cities like D.C. have funds to house the homeless. They need staff.

“That has slowed down the pace at which people are coming into housing,” Zeilinger said during a question-and-answer session Monday. “There is a number of measures that we’re taking to increase that. And we do expect that we will fully get to the goal of using the resources we’ve appropriated. But it is it certainly is an issue. We do have a backlog of assignments to case management.”

The city and nonprofit organizations have ramped up outreach ahead of the accelerated sweep of the McPherson Square encampment, located blocks from the White House, on Wednesday. But the “dearth” of case managers has complicated efforts to link the 70 or so McPherson inhabitants with the appropriate District services and programs, including housing vouchers and counseling services, Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Wayne Turnage told The Washington Post.

Asked about the McPherson Square clearing, Bowser on Monday said that the sweep did not represent “a new policy” and that there were “dangerous conditions in the encampment” that needed to be addressed.

“The safe place for our residents to live is in shelter or in housing, and we want to connect our residents to shelter or housing so that they can also have the supportive services that they need,” Bowser said.

Everhart said she had watched the Ethel’s construction while living in the shelter nearby. She hadn’t known it would be for housing-voucher holders.

“I’m born and bred from D.C.,” Everhart said. “It would be nice to have a spot here, not just me, but to be part of the transition of the whole neighborhood.”