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Bowser’s plan for new homeless shelters to replace D.C. General hits delays

Exterior of the homeless shelter, formerly known as DC General Hospital in Washington, DC on July 10, 2014. It is set to close permanently this year. (Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post)

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s signature plan to replace the D.C. General mega-shelter for homeless families with a network of smaller facilities has encountered delays, with construction of two of those replacement shelters behind schedule.

Bowser administration officials acknowledged the setbacks for the first time Monday during a contentious D.C. Council hearing, held after the Washington City Paper reported that construction of smaller shelters in Wards 7 and 8 was “significantly behind schedule” and that a subcontractor responsible for the bulk of construction had little relevant experience.

Officials told the council they were extending construction hours until 1 a.m., hiring extra labor and taking other steps to make up for lost time and ensure the new shelters are ready by the time they close the dilapidated D.C. General shelter in the fall.

But lawmakers and advocates for the homeless were outraged, and some suggested the mayor had rushed the project to fulfill a campaign promise in an election year.

“At no point was it ever conveyed there may be delays of this magnitude,” council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), who chairs the committees overseeing homeless services, said in her opening remarks. “I feel misled, and I’m disappointed.”

Bowser (D) in January announced that her administration would shut down the shelter on the grounds of the former D.C. General Hospital by the end of the year, even though not all of the replacement facilities would be ready. She said families that would have been sent to D.C. General would instead be housed at the new shelters in Wards 4, 7 and 8 scheduled to open in fall, with motels handling overflow.

Advocates fear fast closure of D.C. General could hurt homeless families

But city officials testified Tuesday that they learned in February that the contractor responsible for new shelters in Wards 7 and 8 in Southeast Washington was running into problems. The city and contractor pushed back the deadline for “substantial completion” of the new shelters from Aug. 31 to Oct. 1.

“In working to achieve our ambitious goals, we have encountered unforeseen circumstances and some challenges, which is a normal part of significant construction projects,” said Greer Gillis, director of the D.C. Department of General Services, which oversees city-owned property.

“While we have had to make adjustments to our construction schedules, the Bowser administration has not wavered in its intention to make sure families are not sheltered at D.C. General beyond the fall,” Gillis said.

After the five-hour hearing, Gillis told The Washington Post that shelters in Wards 4 and 7 should be ready by October but that it is uncertain whether the Ward 8 shelter will open by then.

The remaining shelters in Wards 3, 5 and 6 are scheduled to start operating next summer, while a shelter in Ward 1 is set for summer 2020.

Lawmakers noted that the administration made repeated public assurances that the projects were running smoothly.

“We are way behind schedule from what we were promised,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D). “We are going to pay more than we should have.”

The issues at the Southeast sites stem from the decision to build the shelters using a “modular” approach — essentially building components of the facility off-site and assembling them like a Lego set.

MCN Build, the city’s general contractor for the shelters in Wards 7 and 8, hired Z Modular as a subcontractor to handle that off-site construction.

Emails obtained by the City Paper showed MCN Build complaining that Z Modular, a recently formed company, was falling behind schedule and had never built the kind of units needed for the project.

Lawmakers grilled city officials on why they did not more closely vet Z Modular, but Gillis said that was not her agency’s job.

Asked whether the contractor faces a penalty for not meeting the original Aug. 31 deadline, Gillis said the agency was still weighing its options.

D.C. homeless population dips for second straight year

D.C. General stopped admitting new families in mid-May. Laura Zeilinger, head of the D.C. Department of Human Services, told lawmakers Tuesday that 169 families remain at the former hospital campus and 35 are set to move into new housing in the coming weeks.

She said social workers are mobilizing to find apartments for the remaining residents so that they will not have to move into a replacement shelter or motel.

Lawmakers on Tuesday said the Bowser administration’s handling of the project has undermined public confidence.

“When the council has asked about this project over the last few years, again and again the response has essentially boiled down to: Trust us.” said council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), adding later, “Trust is not good enough.”