The Bowser Administration is to be commended for its plan to put smaller shelters throughout DC as replacement capacity for DC General family shelter. It is, however, facing vehement opposition from some folks to the whole plan, to specific sites, or to elements of the plan. The DC Council heard from almost 90 witnesses at the hearing on March 17, including us. It can be difficult to tell the difference between actual concerns and criticism motivated by what we call here the “isms”: primarily classism, racism and NIMBYism. We recommend that DC government officials consider these three basic questions to unmask those “isms”:
Who’s giving the input?
Many of the most negative comments we’ve seen have been offered anonymously. Generally, people with legitimate concerns are not afraid to come out into the light and make their voices heard. People should identify themselves in community meetings and online if they want their concerns to be taken seriously. The cloak of anonymity should be shed so others can fairly judge the context of assertions and to elevate the conversation to a constructive one, reducing baseless personal or political attacks.
Are concerns based on facts or on fears and stereotypes?
There is no evidence that crime will go up or property values will go down if a homeless shelter opens up in a neighborhood. Opposition on the basis of crime or property values often is based on stereotypes about families experiencing homelessness, people living in poverty and people of color. It may also be based on misinformation about what family shelters in DC look like. There are numerous small scale family shelters in DC already. Most DC residents probably have no idea where those shelters are located, because there’s no way to distinguish the buildings from other buildings, nor the residents from other neighbors.
There may be room for disagreement about many of the particulars of the Mayor’s plan: whether or not developers are being unjustly enriched; whether the Administration pursued a sufficient number of alternative sites; whether a facility should be three stories tall or four. Such concerns often are expressed, however, to veil underlying “isms” and do not typically lend themselves to scientific verification or disproof. (On the other hand, concerns about the environmental hazards and ensuing health risks of the Ward 5 site can be objectively validated through scientific testing.)
If the concerns are based on facts, is the criticism constructive and fairly applied?
When concerns are raised that appear to be based on facts, the next questions are whether the critic is proposing solutions and whether the criticism is fairly applied in other contexts.
Where there are specific, reasonable asks and it is clear that the critic will accept and welcome the shelter if those asks are met, then that input should be taken seriously and accommodated. Where the critics will continue to oppose the shelter even after their vocalized concerns are met, then something deeper is going on, and the opposition is most likely rooted in an ism. For example, we very much appreciate all the people raising concerns about the design of the new shelters and how it will impact the dignity, health and safety of families in the shelters. We’ve been raising these concerns since the fall, when the Administration first proposed lowering the legal standard for family shelters from apartment style to rooms with shared bathrooms and cafeterias. One way to assess the legitimacy of this concern is to ask whether changing the design would eliminate their opposition—if the shelters had private bathrooms or cooking facilities or another design change, would a critic then support a particular site or the plan itself?
Another good way to determine if input is based on an “ism” is to see if the criticism is equally applied in other contexts. For instance, both residents and the Council have spent a lot of time focusing on whether the Administration is getting a good deal for its (our) money. It definitely looks like a lot of money at first glance, and the Administration needs to explain the costs in a more understandable way. We think the way DC gives away deals (and land) to developers in this city has got to change. But the amount of Council, media and public attention to the fiscal responsibility of these deals far outweighs the attention we have seen given to this issue in any other context. For instance, for the development at St. Elizabeth’s hospital, DC will give away public land and devote at least $50 million to subsidize a for-profit sports team’s training facility—with not one affordable housing unit targeted to the hundreds of homeless men who currently live in a shelter on that land. Very little outrage has been expressed at that deal. We shouldn’t just be asking DC to be careful with its money when the development will benefit homeless families or bring shelter into high-end neighborhoods.
Similarly, if neighbors express concern that a less than fifty unit building is too high density, will bring too much traffic to the neighborhood, or represents a safety risk to neighborhood children, the government should ask whether these same concerns are present regarding nearby condominium or apartment buildings or other high density uses in the neighborhood. If not, these concerns may be rooted in an “ism.”
If, in fact, the Administration responds to legitimate concerns of advocates and community members, it will be much easier to unmask the “isms” that often rear their ugly heads in opposition to siting affordable housing and social services for low-income residents. We hope they do so, and we wish them success in sifting through legitimate and illegitimate concerns so that they can move on with the very important task of closing DC General family shelter. Homeless families deserve the same safety and dignity that all District residents do, even in a temporary home, and they can’t get that at DC General.