D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser and her staff briefed the D.C. Council on Tuesday on the city’s effort to build new, smaller facilities for homeless families to replace the D.C. General shelter, which has been plagued by scandal and disrepair.
Under a plan recently approved by the council, the District will construct six small family shelters that will accommodate up to 284 families. Administration officials said that they have provided revised design guidelines to developers and that by year’s end, they would be able to present a plan for the new shelters to the public and the council for review.
“We are making progress on this front,” Bowser’s director of human services, Laura Zeilinger, told the council Tuesday.
She said city officials were reviewing the proposed sites to assess “how they would fit into the community” and meet the needs of homeless families.
“Our expectation is that every ward will shoulder responsibility for our most vulnerable residents,” Zeilinger said.
Although the shuttering of D.C. General is unanimously supported by the council and widely popular among city residents, the uncertainty about the precise locations of the new shelters and what it means for each ward to “shoulder responsibility” provoked some questions Tuesday from council members.
Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), whose ward in Northeast Washington has multiple shelters, asked Bowser (D) and the deputy mayor for health and human services, Brenda Donald, what kinds of considerations officials were making as they select locations.
Ward 5 residents “are particularly sensitive to the issue,” and some are “on edge about the locations,” McDuffie said.
Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) also prodded Bowser and her staff for more details “on the process.”
“Is the executive going to have hearings? Mayor, do you plan to have a forum in every ward where there’s going to be a site?”
Zeilinger and Bowser told the gathering, which included council members and administration staff, that the department would hold talks with council members, community leaders, residents and other key “stakeholders” to build support before unveiling the shelter sites.
“When we have all the necessary paperwork secured for all the sites, we will start stage two, and that is immediate stakeholder engagement, followed by community engagement,” Bowser said in response to Silverman’s question.
City officials also briefed lawmakers Tuesday on recent efforts to deal with sprouting homeless tent encampments in Foggy Bottom and along Rock Creek Parkway, which have drawn complaints from area residents.
Donald said department officials, working with D.C. police, have largely “cleaned up” a couple of encampments, including one along Rock Creek Parkway that had 25 tents. But, she added, “This is a persistent problem.”
Although encampments — or a temporary “abode” — are illegal, simply sleeping in the open is not. City officials, who Donald said are seeking to move tent inhabitants into shelters, also give two weeks notice before removing a camp. But, she acknowledged, people quickly return.
“As of today, there are tents back again,” said council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who said he gets “constant complaints” about an encampment in Foggy Bottom that was recently cleared. “One couple stopped me at dinner the other night. They have two children,” he said. “Someone was defecating in their front yard.”
The tents also appear to have proliferated recently after a man distributed free tents to homeless people who were staying outdoors, Donald said.
As the temperature drops, the city’s homelessness crisis is expected to worsen, when the District is required to provide shelter to any homeless person when there is a risk of hypothermia.
In preparation, the city has added nine new transport vans to its hypothermia-response fleet and has broadened its hypothermia alert standards, Zeilinger said.
The District will issue an alert any time there is a 50 percent or greater chance of precipitation on a night when the temperature is forecast to be 40 degrees or below.