For years, the Legal Clinic has raised concerns about the conditions of homeless shelters in DC, and the pattern of warehousing people experiencing homelessness in old, rundown District buildings. We were right there with families experiencing homelessness at DC Village, as they organized to close down that shuttered nursing home-turned shelter after pleas to District leaders for repairs and better conditions yielded no tangible results. District officials were eventually spurred to action on closing DC Village, but only, it seemed, when WMATA needed the land for a “bus shelter”. Once that development took shape and urgency, DC stopped admitting anyone into DC Village, placed any remaining families in housing, and closed down the shelter. Because no replacement shelters were ready for DC Village, and because this closure occurred right on the precipice of a recession, the District began to rely heavily on another massive and abandoned facility: DC General Hospital. Like DC Village, DC General was initially used by District government as a family seasonal shelter – and only sheltered about 35 families. After DC Village was closed with no alternative emergency shelter for families, DC General grew to be the infamous behemoth District politicians talk about today, sheltering 280 families at its peak.
It’s hard to believe now, but when DC Village was open, families strongly preferred being placed at DC General. It was clean, less crowded, and located right next to a Metro station. But after years of increasing reliance on DC General while failing to do necessary system upgrades and repairs, DC General became the new DC Village: overcrowded, unclean, poor conditions, terrible services, unhealthy and unsafe for families. Once again, families organized to protest and shed light on the situation at DC General via press coverage and Council oversight. In 2010, their efforts paid off to some degree as some conditions were fixed and the contractor that operated the shelter was fired. Most improvements were cosmetic, though, and the new contractor was only marginally better than the last. In early 2013 we released a report on the barriers for families trying to get into shelters as well as the poor conditions at DC General (mice, spiders, lack of heat and hot water, among other issues). At the same time, the number of children there peaked at 600, drawing additional press coverage and concern. A year later, in 2014, 8 year old Relisha Rudd was taken from DC General by a maintenance person who worked there. She is still missing.
Later in 2014, then-Mayor Gray and the DC Council began serious discussions about closing DC General. From the outset, DC Council and the Mayor were in agreement with the community and advocates in saying that DC General must be closed in a way that ensures sufficient shelter capacity for all families who need it. In the fall of 2014, the DC Council passed, and then-Councilmember Muriel Bowser voted for, a resolution to close DC General if, and only if, certain benchmarks were met. One of those benchmarks was adequate replacement shelter capacity “sufficient and available to provide year-round access for homeless families.” Soon after, Mayor Gray announced a request for proposals for replacement shelters for DC General.
The original plan: close DC General after replacement shelters are ready
Mayor Bowser ran on a platform that included closing DC General, but it was a within the context of ending family homelessness by 2018: “Muriel Bowser’s goal will be to lesson [sic] the number of families and individuals in need of shelter. Muriel is committed to finding long-term solutions for would-be homeless families and individuals before turning to a shelter, developing smaller shelter alternatives, and, ultimately, closing DC General.” When her term began, she adopted the Interagency Council on Homelessness’ plan to end homelessness, Homeward DC, which states:
When all of the new units are delivered, we can close DC General. This of course assumes that we are meeting the specified targets for reducing length of stay in shelter, which is the primary trigger for reducing our capacity need. It also assumes that we are able to meet year-round need, including any increase of inflow into the system, through these new units or available overflow. If either variable changes, we will need to revisit options during FY 2016 and FY 2017 to ensure we are able to adequately meet the shelter needs of families.
Until a few weeks ago, nearly every public statement explicitly conditioned the closure of DC General on the opening of the replacement shelters. A few examples include:
- Press release on DC General closure in 2015: “Over the course of the next few years, new emergency housing facilities for families will be brought online, in locations throughout the District, allowing the District to responsibly close and replace DC General Family Shelter.”
- Press release announcing replacement shelter plan in 2016: “The buildings for the short-term family housing will need to be renovated or built from the ground up… Once they are all in place, the District will close the DC General Family Shelter.”
- Mayor Bowser to NBC in early 2016: “We’re on a pretty strict timeline, and so we need all of the proposed units to come online in 2018… And if we are able to do that, and there’s no reason we shouldn’t be, we can close D.C. General in 2018.”
- Testimony of Director Laura Zeilinger in support of the 2016 replacement shelter legislation: “And the longer we are in a place like DC General, the longer vulnerable families in DC aren’t provided with a fair shot at success or dignity. Our threshold for allowing that to continue should be only as long as it takes to develop and open these new sites… But we cannot close DC General without sites to replace its 270 units. We cannot create the types of programs we all agree are the right programs to have, without specific sites to build them on. This bill and closing DC General go hand in hand.”
- Mayor’s Q&A document given to community members regarding proposed replacement shelter sites: “The short-term family housing facilities must be in place and open before we can close DC General… Once the final one is in place, the District will close the DC General Family Shelter.”
The year that DC expected to be ready to close DC General has shifted back and forth over time, but the commitment to only close DC General when replacement shelters were ready has been unwavering—until now. The 2014 DC Council resolution anticipated that DC General would be able to close within a year, prior to the end of the 2014-2015 winter season. When that didn’t happen, Mayor Bowser announced that it would close in 2018 – the last year of her term of office. But in 2016, when the Council switched three of the Bowser Administration’s proposed replacement shelter sites to ensure that the shelters were DC-owned and safe for families, the expected date for closure of DC General shifted to 2020, because the newer sites were not expected to be ready until summer of 2019. The Mayor was certainly not pleased with the resulting delay, as she expressed in colorful terms to the Council Chair (“You’re a f—ing liar! You know it can’t close in !”), but there was no mention of closing DC General before the replacement shelters were ready.
The new plan: close DC General and start demolition before replacement shelters are ready
In January 2018, Mayor Bowser announced that she would close DC General by the end of 2018, despite the fact that only three replacement shelters (the sites in Wards 4, 7 and 8, totaling around 130 units) are anticipated to be ready for occupancy by that time. On the day of the Mayor’s announcement, there were over 230 families living in the DC General shelter. New admissions will end in April, and the Administration says it intends to reduce the number of families at DC General primarily via rapid re-housing placements and transfers to hotels and motels. Mayor Bowser also announced that the abatement and demolition process of buildings on the DC General campus would begin in February, which means 230 families (and 100 women in the Harriet Tubman shelter) will be living there while the District government begins abating lead and asbestos and tearing down surrounding buildings.
Why did the plan change?
It’s no secret that neighbors around DC General have been discussing redevelopment of that land (called Reservation 13) for more than a decade. The last that most neighbors heard was that the plot of land would be developed in phases by Donatelli Development into apartments and retail space. Meanwhile, Mayor Bowser’s bid to Amazon for its new headquarters in October 2017 included DC General as one of the location options.
Mayor Bowser and her agency heads vehemently deny any connection between the proposed development of the DC General land and the modified timeline for the closure of the shelter. Administration officials instead claim either that they are not deviating from their original plan –– or that they are closing the shelter earlier than previously planned because it will benefit families who are homeless. The first explanation is simply untrue; the original plan was to bring all replacement shelters online before closing DC General, and this new plan does not do that. As to the claim that this is solely about doing what is best for homeless families, and not in response to development pressures, the Administration is going to need to do more than simply make that statement in order to be believed.
How will the public and DC Council know if health and safety of families are prioritized over developers’ convenience in the new closure timeline?
- The Administration will not begin the process of demolishing buildings near DC General and abatement of lead and asbestos while families and women at Harriet Tubman are still living there.
- The Administration will not artificially reduce demand for shelter by increasing shelter denials, leaving families in unsafe settings.
- Families will not be placed in hotels and motels that have poor conditions or are removed from transportation and services.
- Families will not be unduly pressured to move out of DC General into housing that does not meet their needs (poor conditions, insufficient size, etc.) in order to clear out DC General by the new deadline.
- If there are increased costs due to increased reliance on hotels and motels, DC will budget appropriately for those costs without taking the money from programs that serve low-income DC residents.
- Decision makers will listen to any additional expressed concerns of families at DC General and in other emergency shelters and respond appropriately.
What can you do?
- Talk to DC Council: The DC Council Committee on Human Services, which is chaired by Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, held a public hearing on the DC General closure on March 14, 2018. You can watch the recording at any time, and contact Councilmember Nadeau (firstname.lastname@example.org) to share your thoughts.
- Talk to the Mayor: Email Mayor Bowser (email@example.com). She needs to know that we all support closing DC General, but only if it is done in a way that centers and respects the health, safety, and stability of families who are homeless. Ask her to show you that commitment with actions, not words.
- Stay tuned! The Legal Clinic is following this process closely, and we will update you as we learn more.