Which is more important: closing the District’s most notorious homeless shelter as quickly as possible or ensuring that the temporary housing that replaces it has private bathrooms?
That question emerged at the center of a debate in the D.C. Council on Tuesday about a bill that would authorize Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to close the sprawling D.C. General homeless shelter and to place families in a system of private rooms instead.
Bowser, who campaigned on a promise to shut down the shelter, introduced the bill last month. District lawmakers could vote on it as early as next week. The bill also would allow the D.C. Department of Human Services to provide temporary shelter for families for as many as 12 days while officials determine whether they qualify for homeless services, and it would create an expedited appeals process for those who are rejected.
The District is facing a growing homelessness crisis as prices rise and the area’s income gap widens. Bowser has made eradicating homelessness one of her top priorities, committing $23 million to the effort in this year’s budget. Closing the shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital, where last year’s disappearance of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd provoked a public outcry, has been a central component of Bowser’s plan.
But replacing the shelters with single rooms, devoid of private bathrooms and kitchen space, proved contentious Tuesday. The plan would provide for 3
Amber W. Harding, a lawyer at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said that shared bathrooms can contribute to “increased conflict, more diseases, insect infestations . . . re-traumatization, sleep deprivation and social withdrawal.”
Her organization interviewed more than 50 homeless families and found that most were deeply troubled by their children’s sharing a bathroom with strangers.
Some witnesses, such as Tamaso Johnson, a policy lawyer at the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said the need for a private space to bathe and use the toilet is particularly critical for the survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, who are heavily represented in the homeless population.
Logistically, the advocates said, the plan also posed problems: How are parents supposed to get their children to school on time when they share a bathroom with a large group of people?
Some council members and witnesses pushed back, arguing that bathrooms are costly. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) prodded for data to support the claim that shared bathrooms are less safe. Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) questioned whether it would be worth building fewer rooms and including private bathrooms.
“If I can choose to get two more families off the street versus a private bathroom, I think I would choose to get two more families off the street,” she said.
Several witnesses suggested that the administration should be able to find a middle ground to allow for more privacy. Some said the city, which announced a $23 million surplus, should be able to find the money.
“Asking us to choose between putting people in permanent housing or having dignified and decent housing is not a fair question,” said Monica Kamen from the D.C. Fair Budget Coalition.
The city’s Interagency Council on Homelessness has met twice to discuss the bill and will provide its recommendations for amendments Friday.
Council members Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), David Grosso (I-At Large), Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) and Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) also attended Tuesday’s hearing.