Amy Moore is executive director of the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop.
Imagine how it feels to be among the more than 350 children living at D.C. General, the District’s emergency family shelter slated to be shuttered for good in the fall, as they walk into their home covered in banners announcing the shiny new development that will be built once they are gone. Not only are they left to wonder why they are not deserving of the nice home they see on the banners, but also their existence, as challenging as it may be in a dilapidated building, will be “disappeared” by the demolition that leaves behind no trace of the lives lived there.
It is a profound injustice.
Sufficient alternatives to the shelter won’t be ready by the time D.C. General closes. Relocation plans communicated to residents have been vague. Construction fences block access to limited parking. Ground has been broken, and crews are actively digging all around the premises. It is a situation fraught with instability and uncertainty for the most vulnerable people in our society, and there is seemingly little mention of this in the public discourse. It is stunning in its callousness, and the message could not be clearer: You do not matter.
Moreover, closing the shelter does not address the systemic problems that keep people in a cycle of homelessness. The displacement of people without the means to help shape, benefit from or resist that which displaces them only serves to perpetuate the cycle. Without the perspectives of those directly affected, how can systemic solutions be identified, let alone implemented?
In 2016, artists from the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop led a project to paint a mural along a hallway of D.C. General with some of the teenagers who lived there. The mural depicts larger-than-life self portraits of these young apprentices, who decided they wanted the mural to show how they viewed themselves as good role models for the younger kids living there. The figures are surrounded by representations of their hopes and dreams; telling a story of aspiration, talent, wisdom and determination. The work is inspirational and beautiful, but mostly it is evidence of their existence. It is the voice of humanity and potential found within a place of extraordinary need.
The closing of D.C. General is long overdue, but this is only part of the story. As new development supplants the shelter, there exists a window of opportunity to reflect on the sheer number of stories collected within its walls over time, to deeply feel their poignancy, to cultivate a collective empathy that compels more comprehensive action. While the plan to replace D.C. General with smaller, neighborhood shelters addresses the unacceptable conditions residents experience while living at D.C. General, it does not address the affordable housing crisis. The plan offers no relocation strategy for people working in earnest to turn their lives around but who reach their 90-day shelter stay limit and still cannot afford the staggeringly high rents in the District. Three months is an impossible bar. It sets people up to fail.
Without a doubt, the primary goal of getting people out of the shelter is laudable. But further action that tackles secondary and tertiary approaches to inclusive community building is largely absent from public discourse. Homelessness does not exist in a vacuum, yet we act as though it does. It is insidious in that the things that make people homeless sneak up and ossify until they are in a situation that is nearly impossible to get out of without help. It’s usually not any one event but a series of misfortunes over time. These subtleties of context matter and are what distinguish business as usual from meaningful change. It is in the subtleties that we also discover how we all share ownership of the situation and recognize our individual capacity for moving the needle on this issue with our own attitudes and actions.
Solutions born out of lived experiences offer the greatest impact. Over time we become numb to the realities of social injustice. We disconnect from them because they seem insurmountable or too far removed from our own realities.
But really, it’s the simple, daily things that offer the greatest insights, and by extension, the clearest path forward. One young shelter resident, upon seeing on one of those construction banners hanging outside D.C. General an artist’s rendering of a fountain, remarked how lucky the children living there would be to have a swimming pool at their new home. No one should be able to make peace with that story.