Activists demonstrated outside D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s Northwest Washington home on Monday morning, criticizing the city for razing parts of the former D.C. General Hospital campus while homeless families are still housed nearby.
Bowser is overseeing the closure of the dilapidated homeless megashelter at D.C. General this year. In her most ambitious initiative to date, Bowser plans to replace the shelter with six smaller facilities spread throughout the city. The first of those modern facilities were scheduled to open this fall but encountered delays.
Demolition work has started on the campus before the remaining 132 families have moved out. Advocates and some lawmakers contend that the bulldozing is exposing children to lead and other dangerous substances. Earlier this month, the D.C. Council approved legislation requiring the mayor to submit weekly reports with the results of lead and asbestos testing at the megashelter.
“Lead in our water, lead in our air. Mayor Bowser, do you care?” the group of about three dozen left-wing activists and advocates for the homeless chanted outside Bowser’s home about 7:30 a.m.
In front of the stairs leading up to Bowser’s Colonial Village home, they stacked cardboard boxes labeled “toxic” and knocked them over in a mock demolition, throwing handfuls of flour to represent the airborne spread of lead and asbestos.
One demonstrator held a sign reading: “Do demo next to our kids, and we’ll make noise where u live.” Another read: “What if it was your kids?”
The mayor, who is single, adopted a baby girl in May. There was no sign of activity in Bowser’s home, and it was unclear whether the mayor was inside.
Bowser’s office declined to say if she was at home or to respond to the concerns raised by protesters.
A pair of police officers monitored the nearly one-hour protest. Some of the mayor’s neighbors stepped out of their homes to record the ruckus with their phones.
City officials overseeing the homeless shelter replacement did not answer questions about why the District cannot wait to demolish the campus surrounding D.C. General until after the homeless families have relocated but defended the decision in a statement.
“The deconstruction of DC General is being done in a slow and systematic way to ensure the safety and health of the remaining DC General residents and the greater community,” said Greer Gillis, director of the Department of General Services, which oversees city-owned real estate. “DGS is working above and beyond the standard construction requirements, for example, by using water cannons to spray any dust particles and pull them to the ground quickly to prevent dust flowing across the site.”
Shelter resident Sharronda Marbley, 25, says those assurances aren’t enough and worries her 7-year-old son, who already has signs of lead exposure from earlier living conditions, could be in harm’s way.
“It’s somewhere you don’t feel comfortable, you know it’s not your home,” said Marbley, who has lived in the shelter since September. “Why not wait until we have vacated the premises and the whole building is empty so you don’t have to worry about anyone getting hurt or getting sick or anyone complaining about noises? There are babies in here. There are older families. It’s not fair to the residents.”
Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) says the city needs a better answer for starting demolition.
“No one can say that there is zero risk — especially to children’s health — during this demolition,” White said. “Tell us why demolition couldn’t have started a couple weeks later, and then you would have avoided all this confusion and controversy.”
New homeless shelters were scheduled to open this fall in Wards 4, 7 and 8, but the city and contractor pushed back the target completion date for the two Southeast Washington shelters from Aug. 31 to Oct. 1. And the facility in Ward 8 could be delayed even further. Officials on Monday did not immediately answer questions about whether that project is on track.
Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) originally proposed delaying demolition until the remaining families found new housing, but he dropped that provision before the bill came up for a vote three weeks ago.
Amber Harding, a lawyer with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said her organization is considering legal action to stop the demolition of D.C. General before replacement shelters are ready.
Meanwhile, the protesters were ramping up public pressure.
“We see time and time again where Mayor Bowser and the leaders of the city do not stand up, do not protect and do not support or invest in black or brown bodies,” Samantha Davis, a Ward 5 resident and housing activist, said at the demonstration.
The protesters left behind a sidewalk and the hood of a car parked in front of the mayor’s home covered in flour, with the message “No toxic demo!” spelled out on the powdery hood.