More than 16 months later, the Long Branch and Gwendolyn Coffield recreation centers are still serving as shelters, an increasingly uneasy arrangement as Montgomery reopens and the pandemic persists.
At Coffield, which houses women, clients have reported mice, mold and leaks. At Long Branch, which houses men, staff members have fielded complaints from community members who want their recreation center back. Families returned to the public pool opposite Long Branch over the summer, with children streaming past the gym where 70 or so men take refuge.
Tension over the shelters has become a sticking point between top officials in Montgomery County, illustrating the pressures faced by local governments navigating a confusing, delta-variant-driven phase of the pandemic as financial resources and community support wear thin.
Using hotels or overflow facilities has been effective in curbing virus infection rates among the homeless, who tend to be older and sicker than the general public, experts say. But as the pandemic wears on, communities have been forced to confront the sustainability of these measures, even while the recently expired eviction moratorium threatens to push additional people onto the streets.
New York City in July started transferring thousands of homeless people from hotels back to shelters, drawing criticism from housing advocates. Cities across California, including San Francisco and San Jose, closed some of their hotel shelters over the summer. In Independence, Ohio, 50 homeless men were forced to leave a hotel a month earlier than expected after complaints of “disorderly conduct” from a neighboring community.
In the D.C. region, both Fairfax County and the District have been placing some homeless individuals in hotels. Fairfax plans to maintain its program for as long as the federal government provides financial support. (The Biden administration recently said it would pay for emergency shelter until the end of the year.) The District plans to use extended federal funding to continue its pandemic emergency housing program over the next few months.
“This was always described as ‘it’s an emergency situation and we’re going to find a better solution,’ ” Montgomery County Council President Tom Hucker (D-District 5) said about the county’s use of recreation centers. Hucker, who is weighing a bid for county executive, said he thinks it is unfair to occupy the public facilities in Silver Spring, where communities are poorer and more racially diverse than in other parts of Montgomery.
“Residents have been patient, gracious hosts since the pandemic began, when the community centers closed without notice,” he said in a letter to County Executive Marc Elrich (D) in July. “County leadership has been exceedingly unresponsive to these long underserved, predominantly Black and Brown communities despite residents’ repeated good faith efforts to collaborate on a solution.”
Amanda Harris, Montgomery’s chief of services to end homelessness, acknowledged that recreation centers are not designed to provide shelter. But the arrival of the highly contagious delta variant has left the county with little choice, at least until community transmission abates — or, more likely, until officials can relocate the homeless to a permanent shelter opening next year.
Having the extra space at the centers has helped Montgomery keep test positivity among the homeless lower than 2 percent throughout the pandemic, Harris noted. Of the 1,600 county residents who have died of covid-19 so far, two were homeless.
“People are tired now and they want to get back to normal. I get it. So do we,” she said. “[But] not doing this means we’re kicking people out onto the street.”
Plagued by uncertainty
Even before the pandemic, Montgomery’s homeless shelter for men had faced an uncertain future.
Operated by the nonprofit Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless, the shelter in 2019 was abruptly forced to evacuate its campus on East Gude Drive after vibrations at an adjacent landfill sickened clients and staff. It split its population into two locations — an office space in Taft Court where men bathe in portable, outdoor showers, and a facility at Crabbs Branch Way, which was typically used for overflow shelter during winter.
Less than a year later, the pandemic hit. Social distancing requirements halved the available beds at both shelters, prompting the county to relocate 70 men to the Long Branch center and some others to hotels.
“I’ve been working in homelessness since the mid-1980s, and this has been the most challenging two years of my life,” said Susie Sinclair-Smith, the center’s chief executive.
Near public transit and equipped with a kitchen and clean, working showers, the Long Branch center came as welcome relief to the homeless during the pandemic, said Sinclair-Smith. But as the county’s public facilities reopened in the spring, residents began pushing back on the continued use of their community center.
Long Branch resident Annie Tulkin said that she used to take her 5-year-old daughter to the center for dance classes and that many of the neighborhood’s low-income and senior populations relied heavily on the center for services.
“The community understood the need for the shelter during the pandemic,” said Tulkin, who has urged the county to find alternatives. “No one is anti-homeless. We are pro-community.”
Sligo Branview Community Association President Rosemary Wilson said residents wonder why Long Branch was selected as a shelter instead of facilities in other, more affluent parts of Montgomery. “Right now our main concern is, why us?” Wilson said. “It seems like our area was chosen because our area seemed like it wouldn’t speak up.”
Walking through the Long Branch center one recent afternoon, Sinclair-Smith said the county had placed the shelter in an awkward position by failing to provide a permanent location pre-pandemic and relying on the community center for so long. She added that staff have “taken every conceivable measure” to make residents more comfortable, including trying to dispel misconceptions of people experiencing homelessness.
“We do feel terrible about taking the center from the community,” Sinclair-Smith said. “We are trying to be the best neighbors possible.”
Harris, the housing official, said she has spoken to Long Branch residents about their concerns. The county set up a privacy fence around the pool opposite the recreation center and added security to the area, she said. It has also accelerated construction of a $13.6 million men’s shelter on Nebel Street in Rockville, which will be able to accommodate 200 clients when completed in January.
“It’s painful to spend so much money on shelter. I’d much rather spend money on housing, but we don’t really have a choice,” Harris said. The county has placed 712 households experiencing homelessness into permanent housing since March 2020, but demand for shelter has not subsided. In Montgomery, as in communities elsewhere, pandemic shutdowns pushed dozens of people onto the street, many for the first time.
On a recent afternoon at Long Branch, a handful of men on the basketball court napped on their cots, which sat exactly six feet apart beneath an unplugged scoreboard.
Walter Boyd, 46, sat next to a gray bin that contained all of his belongings. He lost his restaurant job in March last year and tried sleeping at hotels, then couches and on the street before arriving at Long Branch.
“If you go to a shelter, you have to be on drugs or abusive — that’s the bad stigma. . . . And that’s something I struggled with, because me? Shelter?” Boyd said. “Then you realize, hey, man, you’re dealing with a pandemic; these are not normal times.”
Boyd landed a job working in a restaurant a few days after checking into the shelter. Having a place to stay was essential in helping him get back on his feet, he said.
“Sometimes it’s the little things that get you going,” Boyd said. “I actually got a place to stay. A place I can go to and from work and all that. So that’s one aspect the system works.”
At Coffield, grievances have emerged not from the surrounding community but from the 65 or so women living in its sports hall.
Conditions at the aging facility were deteriorating even before the pandemic, with county officials flagging “broken pipes, damaged floors, and failed mechanical equipment” in emails dating to 2018 that were reviewed by The Washington Post. Since the center became a shelter, clients have reported mold, mice, leaks and a lack of hot water.
It’s “unconscionable” for the county to continue housing the homeless at Coffield given these conditions, Hucker said. But Harris said that the Department of General Services has responded to the clients’ complaints and that they have been resolved. When the men move from their three locations into the new facility on Nebel Street, the women at the Coffield center will move into the shelter at Crabbs Branch Way.
County Council member Evan Glass (D-At Large), who serves as the council’s lead on ending homelessness, said he asked the county to conduct an inventory of available facilities that might be more suitable to serve as a shelter than Coffield in the months before the move. Harris said the search for alternatives is underway.
Meanwhile, it continues to be challenging to operate out of the Coffield center, said Courtney Hall, chief executive for Interfaith Works, the nonprofit that supports homeless women. Among other issues, the facility doesn’t have a full-service kitchen.
One bright spot has been the community support, Hall said. Neighbors have provided pillows, mattress pads and food for the women, and complaints have been infrequent.
“I’m not glossing over the issues that emerge when you’re occupying a rec center and using it as shelter,” Hall said. “But there’s some real compassion, some real empathy. We really appreciate it.”