How Imperfect Can the Family Shelter Plan Be and Still Be Good Enough?

We’re often cautioned not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The Bowser administration’s selection of sites for new family shelters raises a question, however. How imperfect can something be for us to still say it’s good enough?

It’s a question that’s divided District residents and apparently DC Council members. They got an earful during a recent 14-hour hearing. And they have questions that remain unanswered, though the City Administrator has responded to those the Chairman earlier posed.

The biggest question is whether, as the Mayor contends, the site package is an all-or-nothing deal — one the Council must accept as good enough if it wants families more suitably sheltered.

In other words, must it approve all the contracts with the developers the administration has chosen — the sites, the designs and what they’d get paid — or face the prospect that the over-large, decrepit DC General family shelter will remain open indefinitely?

We seem to have a consensus on the fundamental concept: Replace DC General with smaller shelters scattered around the city — one in almost every ward.* That’s about as far as consensus goes.

Some Councilmembers and other parties have raised concerns about the costs, for example, and what the District would actually get.

For the time being, let’s just say the District would spend a lot, mainly for shelters developers would own and could repurpose — in most cases, after 20 years. That’s what seems most troublesome to the Council.

But the groundswell of opposition centers on the administration’s choice of sites, mingled with protests over its failure to seek community input before producing its plan.

As one might expect, some of this is quite clearly a not-in-my-backyard response. Property values will drop (though the estimated value of the sites themselves will soar). Criminal activity will rise.

There will be congestion (because so many of those homeless parents own cars). They’ll loiter (though they’ll have rooms they can stay during the day, computer labs and both indoor and outdoor play spaces for the kids).

The Mayor says that people are fighting site choices out of fear, implying they fear having those homeless families as neighbors. But the facts say otherwise in one case for sure.

We see that residents in partially-gentrified Ward 5 object to the site chosen largely because it’s not in any neighborhood, properly speaking.

The site is a former industrial park, facing the largest of the transit authority’s bus depots. As many as 300 buses going in and out, the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless told the Council. And while parked, they’re gassed up, tuned up, painted — all processes that emit toxic air pollutants.

Other nearby facilities — also perhaps health hazards and definitely not residential — include several auto body shops, a cement mixing facility and another where solid waste is transferred from the trucks that collected it to larger trucks.

The City Administrator discounts the health concerns. Says the Department of Health has, in essence, said that “current data shows that there are no increased health risks” for the future shelter residents.

But the department isn’t an independent agency. And whatever data it has, they’re apparently not the results of a full-fledged environmental analysis, since the Administrator would surely have provided it if they were.

Anybody who visits the site can confirm other concerns. There’s no nearby grocery store, for example, or a pharmacy. A couple of night clubs instead and a strip joint. Also family gardens of sorts — several marijuana farms.

One nearby bus stop, but no subway station. The closest is nearly two miles away — quite a long walk for anybody who’s not in the best shape and needs to get someplace quickly. Even more challenging for a parent who’s carrying or shepherding a child or lugging an armload of packages.

Children and adults alike would have to cross railroad tracks to get any place behind the site — another potential hazard, since trains will go barreling by.

Vocal Ward 5 residents and their representative on the Council — Kevin McDuffie — have yet another objection. The family shelter, they say, would be near two other shelters and five hotels the District is using to shelter families it can’t fit into DC General.

This may seem a variation on NIMBY — call it “we already have enough in our backyard.” And that surely seems the sentiment of one Ward 5 resident, who says that her ward and another “have had enough of these so-called help thy neighbor programs.”

But perhaps having so many shelters, permanent and otherwise, plus related social services all in one part of one ward could create a sort of ghetto, contrary to the vision of integrating the shelters — and thus the families — into the community.

The Mayor says that, in some cases, she and her team “had a very hard time finding locations.” They think the sites chosen “are the best” — presumably the best that bidders for the contracts proposed.

Ward 5 residents, among others, have identified alternatives. The City Administrator says none will do, for this reason or that. Also says the city initially rejected two other sites, both because too small.

One, he says, would have required a seven story building — the same as the shelter planned for another ward, as he doesn’t say.

In short, the Bowser administration has dug in its heels, fearing that if it budges, residents in every ward and their Councilmembers will pile on. Or so one gathers from the Mayor’s preemptive remarks.

But where there’s a will, there’s generally a way. And in view of all we know, the Council should create that will by telling the Mayor that her plan might be good enough if — and only if — she and her people find a safer, more residential and conveniently located site in Ward 5.

*  The administration’s plan would place family shelters in every ward, but Ward 2, which will get a shelter for women who don’t have children they’re caring for instead.

 

 

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