At a hearing Wednesday, advocates said they feared that homeless families would be rushed into substandard housing or denied shelter so that Bowser (D) — who is seeking reelection — could make good on a 2014 campaign promise to shutter the notorious D.C. General.
“If D.C. General is closed in a way that risks the health and safety of the families who live there and other families who need shelter in D.C., then the injustice of placing families there in the first place will be compounded, not alleviated,” said Amber Harding, a lawyer with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.
Several lawmakers also seemed skeptical that the administration was acting in the best interest of homeless families. And they questioned why the Bowser administration is now moving to shut down D.C. General, when it has maintained for years that the mega-shelter could not be closed until the replacement sites were built.
Only three of the six replacement shelters, in Wards 4, 7 and 8, are scheduled to open this fall.
The city official who oversees homeless services said that the mayor always wanted to close D.C. General by 2018 and that it was now possible because of a recent dip in the number homeless families and the creation of more options to house families elsewhere.
“We have been able to create a plan that will work, that will serve families better and serves that initial goal within that initial timeline,” said Laura Zeilinger, director of the D.C. Department of Human Services.
The plight of residents at D.C. General captured the city’s attention after the disappearance of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd in 2014. It highlighted long-standing problems at the converted hospital, where residents complained about a lack of privacy, unsanitary conditions and concerns about personal safety. Earlier this month, the main building lost hot water for a weekend.
D.C. General — which currently houses more than 200 families — will stop taking new residents in May. The city, which already spends about $30 million a year on motel rooms for homeless families when there is no space at the shelter, will increase its use of motel rooms while waiting for the remaining shelters to open next year.
That is better than keeping families in a partially occupied, dilapidated shelter, Zeilinger said.
But some questioned that assumption. “Hotels where we house homeless families are not well connected to transportation or services,” said council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large). “That’s likely to cause even more unstability for families, particularly children who already have gone through too much.”
City officials stressed that the goal was to get homeless families into permanent housing, not motels. Caseworkers are ramping up efforts to help residents find apartments using rapid-rehousing vouchers, which are good for a year to give recipients time to get jobs and become self-sufficient.
Many landlords will not accept the vouchers, but the city is hoping to entice them to participate, by offering to pay the cost of missed rent payments and any damage to units.
But advocates are also concerned that the city will steer shelter residents toward unscrupulous landlords who allow their units to fall into disrepair. “I want to ensure families are not pressured into housing that does not meet their needs in order to meet the deadline,” said council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8). “These are our residents, and these are our family members.”
Lawmakers said they were also concerned that the mayor’s plan to start in April the demolition of smaller, vacant buildings that surround D.C. General would expose children and families to lead, asbestos and other dangerous substances. They pressed administration officials to explain why demolition could not wait until the families left.
City officials said that they would be vigilant to protect residents during demolition and that razing the entire campus at once could also be dangerous.
“Small, bite-size chunks is the safest way to do a demo of this size,” said Brian Butler of the Department of General Services, which manages city real estate. “We are confident this can be done safely.”
Some advocates questioned whether the administration is closing D.C. General to help bolster the city’s bid to lure Amazon.com, which is searching for a location to build a second national headquarters. Part of the D.C. General campus is among the sites offered by the city for a portion of the headquarters.
“If this rush to close D.C. General without any regard for those black families, without any regard for black children, is to make way for yet another white billionaire, you can expect to be held accountable,” said Aja Taylor of Bread for the City, referring to Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos (who also owns The Washington Post).
Administration officials have denied any link between Amazon and closing D.C. General. Council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), who chairs the Committee on Human Services, which held the meeting, said she did not think Amazon was a factor.
“My sense is if that site is used for Amazon, it’s not for years down the road. D.C. General would have already closed,” Nadeau said. “I’m just not sure it’s the point today.”