D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration released a multimillion-dollar plan for closing the city’s troubled shelter for homeless families within a year, but lawyers and advocates who work with the homeless said it raised as many questions as it answered.
Gray’s plan calls for leasing or constructing six buildings across the city that would each house up to 50 homeless families. Privately owned buildings would be renovated by landlords and turned over to the city as shelters by fall 2015. Once the smaller shelters are open, the city would demolish the nearly 300-room facility at the former D.C. General Hospital.
The plan would come with a price tag of at least $52 million. It is contingent on identifying vacant buildings and charitable landlords willing to provide housing for the city’s poorest families — a hurdle the plan’s critics called too high.
“How many 50-unit buildings are there out there in thriving neighborhoods that aren’t being used?” asked Jenny Reed, deputy director of the nonprofit D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute.
In a statement, Gray (D) called the plan “a workable way for us to move forward on closing the D.C. General shelter and replacing it with temporary housing that is more appropriate for families.”
After the disappearance of 8-year-old shelter resident Relisha Rudd, administration officials said, they worked throughout the summer to come up with a detailed plan to replace the unsanitary and dysfunctional building.
The idea of using smaller, community-based shelters was suggested by city experts on homelessness as a more manageable, humane way to tackle the problem. Still, Gray’s strategy did not seem to impress them.
The proposal was released to the public less than an hour before a special hearing convened by D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) at the D.C. General campus. And Graham told the audience that he had received the administration’s report about 2 p.m., an hour after the hearing was scheduled to begin. After perusing the report, Graham said it would take a “miracle worker” or “a wizard” to make it work.
Brian J. Hanlon, the director of the city’s Department of General Services, estimated that it would take an additional $18 million in this year’s budget to begin leasing other shelter space for homeless residents.
“Do you have a plan for where [that money] is coming from?” Graham asked during the hearing.
“No,” Hanlon responded.
Michele Williams, the city’s family services administrator, said that to make the plan work, the city needs to “appeal to landlords’ hearts,” as well as their wallets, because of the likely economic sacrifice involved in housing the homeless in all or part of a building.
A brief, five-page solicitation to potential landlords is vague about where the new shelters could be located or what public hearing process would accompany the creation of the proposed shelter network.
Hanlon said the plan called city officials and civic leaders to adopt a “linked-arms approach” to overcome efforts by residents to organize against having a homeless shelter in their neighborhoods, as has occurred in the past.
Already, council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) declared that wards east of the Anacostia River should not shoulder most of the burden. He urged officials to find properties in more-affluent wards.
“I’m tired of having that proportion of people with no income or low-income,” Barry told Hanlon. “We love them, but we need a mixture. . . . You are going to have to find a way to get those units in Ward 2 or Ward 3.”
Gray’s seven-page plan dismissed the idea of renovating existing city buildings but was open to the possibility of using public land to build more shelter spaces for the homeless. That is not the city’s preferred option, officials said, because renovating city buildings or building new ones would take too long and cost too much.
The plan also left wide open the criteria for what might be used as a shelter and did not set any deadlines to compare possible rental properties. The administration intends to sign leases with owners of workable properties as they become available.
Properties should include office space for case management and access to playgrounds, according to Hanlon’s testimony.
The goal would be to replace the capacity of D.C. General, although that would not provide enough space to house all of the city’s homeless families.
The shelter at the former hospital was filled to the brim last winter, and the city is projecting a 16 percent increase in homeless families this coming winter. It’s unclear where the extra families would be housed.
Also, the Gray administration has not budgeted money for emergency hotel rooms on cold nights, even though a judge has ruled that operating makeshift shelters for dozens of families in gymnasiums violates city laws intended, in part, to protect children.
Meanwhile, General Services has taken steps to freshen up the D.C. General shelter. A ribbon-cutting was scheduled for Wednesday at the shelter’s new playground, long desired by shelter residents. The department has also tidied up common areas, and hallways on Tuesday smelled of fresh paint.
Still, shelter residents complained that they were not given any notice that a hearing about the building would be held until Tuesday afternoon. Only a handful of residents were in the room during Graham’s hearing, and only four testified. Stephanie Williams, 27, and two other residents told The Washington Post that they were not allowed to take part in the public hearing until those who had signed up to testify failed to show up.
In her testimony, Stephanie Williams cried as she said that her family had abandoned her and that she had no foreseeable way to afford an apartment in the city. She pleaded for help.
“I would do anything to get out of D.C. General,” she said.