I’ve been feeling I should say something about the Gray administration’s plan for closing the DC family shelter ever since it saw the light of day a couple of weeks ago. I haven’t because I’ve had trouble getting my mind around it.
Not altogether my fault. The plan, you see, isn’t really a plan. It’s more like a working paper — or a statement of preferences perhaps. These are certainly clear enough. But whether the next administration can translate them into a reality is at the very least questionable.
And in a couple of respects, I hope it doesn’t. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here are the major issues, as I see them.
Should DC General Be Closed?
A rhetorical question. No one, I venture to say, thinks that DC General is an okay place for children and their parents to live, even temporarily. It’s too big — a “small city” Councilmember Graham called it.
It was never fully converted from the hospital it used to be — apparently because no one wanted to acknowledge that it was the replacement for the then-notorious shelter the former mayor felt pressed to close in 2007.
Its basic systems are seemingly beyond redemption — frequent heat and air conditioning outages, no hot water for long periods of time, elevators that break down — or in one recent case, get flooded. And the place is persistently infested by mice, roaches, bed bugs and the like. Moldy too.
In short, it’s shameful that a child would have to go missing to get District officials serious about closing DC General.
Where Would the District Shelter Homeless Families?
The Gray administration envisions smaller shelters scattered across the city. They would have to include play spaces for children and be near to public transportation and “community amenities [undefined].”
The administration would prefer buildings leased from private landlords because, it says, this option would be quicker and cheaper than renovating publicly-owned buildings or constructing shelters on publicly-owned land.
The latter would also require the District to pay for ongoing operating costs, e.g., utilities, maintenance. The preferred option would make private landlords responsible for these, as well as security systems, furniture and whatever renovations their buildings require.
Ideally, each building would have 40-50 units, though the plan allows as how some larger shelters might be okay. For the smaller shelters, it projects a $2,000 per month cost.
Now, why would an owner of a potentially suitable building in any of our high-rent, high-demand neighborhoods agree to lease it for a minimum of 10 years at a rate this low — or anything close?
And if one did, wouldn’t the NIMBY (not in my backyard) forces “come out of the woodwork,” as the Director of the General Services Department has predicted? One recalls what happened when the District considered putting a smaller shelter in soon-to-be Mayor Bowser’s ward.
So, says Aaron Wiener at Washington City Paper, the “available candidates” will instead probably be “boarded-up properties” in low-income neighborhoods on “the city’s margins” — far less convenient to public transportation and “amenities” than DC General.
What Would a Unit Be?
Well, I’ll tell you what it wouldn’t necessarily be — an “apartment-style” unit, which the District’s homeless services law requires for families, except when no such unit is available.
The Gray administration interprets this limited exemption to mean that shelter units the District has yet to lease or build don’t have to include a bathroom for each family or any place to prepare a meal. They apparently may be just a single room, where parents and children must sleep together — just as they must at DC General.
How Many Homeless Families Would Have Shelter?
The Gray administration wants the replacement shelters to have, in total, the number of units currently provided at DC General — and to close the shelter in one fell swoop “so as to avoid an unplanned shelter expansion.”
It’s not altogether clear how many replacement units there’d be, since the Department of Human Services has concluded that 40 or so units at DC General don’t meet the (minimal) criteria the court established when it ordered the agency to stop “sheltering” families in recreation centers.
What is clear is that there won’t be nearly enough replacement units unless the number of families needing shelter miraculously plummets — or the homeless prevention and rapid exit strategies the Winter Plan promises miraculously work much better than they’ve done to date.
The plan isn’t short on units because providing enough to meet the need would cost more than the District could afford. It’s “a clear philosophical stance,” says the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services.
And it’s based on a truly appalling ignorance — or worse — of what happens to homeless families when the District won’t provide them a safe place to stay. Senior policy advisor Sakina Thompson, who wanted even fewer units, says, “During the summertime, when shelter is not available, families find other means.”
Indeed, they do. They walk the streets looking for someone to take them in for awhile. They sleep in cars, if they have them, or at bus stops or on a church floor. They take refuge in a laundromat. Some presumably return to the abusers they’ve fled.
Whatever “other means” they find, they’re likely to have more and/or worse problems when the District must finally shelter them than they had when they become homeless.
Not so long ago, the District provided shelter year round to families who’d otherwise have no safe place to stay.
Mayor Bowser and the DC Council will have to decide whether to move forward with a plan that would intentionally replicate the crises that Gray and his people have used to justify barring the shelter doors, except when it’s freezing outside.
I’m hoping for a more compassionate — and policy-smart — philosophical stance.