VERY LITTLE fanfare accompanied the shuttering of the District’s notorious shelter for homeless families at the old D.C. General hospital. There were brief remarks, and the entrance was chained shut. “We’re moving on,” said Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D). “This is our past, and we’re focusing on our future.”
The mayor was right not to celebrate. The District still faces many challenges in the fight against homelessness, and the closing of this disgraceful shelter was long overdue. That it took the disappearance four years ago of Relisha Rudd — who would have celebrated her 13th birthday on Oct. 29, the day before D.C. General closed — to spotlight the shelter’s deplorable conditions will forever be to the city’s discredit.
Nonetheless, last month’s closing was a significant milestone that came about largely because of the perseverance of Ms. Bowser and members of her administration, notably Department of Human Services Director Laura Zeilinger. When she first ran for mayor four years ago, Ms. Bowser pledged that she would close the shelter, which at times housed as many as 250 families, during her first term in office. There was little political upside, but Ms. Bowser advanced a plan to replace D.C. General with a network of seven smaller shelters located throughout the city. Two of the shelters have opened, in Wards 4 and 7, and a third will soon open in Ward 8. The remaining shelters will be completed between next summer and early 2020.
But the city’s strategy for tackling homelessness consists of more than just building new shelters. There has been an emphasis in streamlining the system and strengthening supports to families to keep them out of emergency shelters or shorten their stays once there. A promising sign that the city may be on the right track can be seen in the fact that the families who had been housed at D.C. General weren’t simply relocated to the new neighborhood shelters but instead were placed in more permanent housing. The number of homeless families, according to city officials, has decreased by almost 40 percent over the past two years.
As for the D.C. General building, plans are to demolish it as quickly as is practical. Ms. Bowser told us, “I want to make sure that — whoever sits in this office — families and children are never again placed there.” Amen.