We’ve just made a big decision for our city. Today the DC Council voted to close the DC General Family Shelter, approving the Homeward DC plan to end long-term homelessness in the District.
The Homeward DC legislation isn’t about politics, regardless of disagreements about specific sites or arguments about process. Instead, this effort reflects the unified goal of the Mayor and the Council to close DC General as quickly as possible and replace it with smaller and more appropriate emergency housing for families.
For the first time, we have more than just a desire to close DC General. We’ve been working on an actual plan, with actual dollars attached to make it happen. It’s my hope that in less than three years, we’ll be able to lock the doors at DC General and ensure that our families facing homelessness will have safe, dignified shelter instead. Families in crises will no longer have to accept rodents in exchange for a roof over their heads. They will not have to sacrifice safety or cleanliness for a bed for their children at night.
Over the last several months, we’ve been debating how to close DC General. To her credit, the Mayor put forth the first plan I’ve seen to move away from a failed and centralized shelter like DC General to smaller, neighborhood-based emergency housing sites around the city. I think this overall approach will be better for the quality of services, better for the families experiencing homeless to recover from crisis, and smaller sites will better fit the context of a neighborhood.
But as I’ve evaluated the proposed Ward 6 site, there have been several elements I’ve considered and questioned, which led to my work to find an alternative site in the Ward. Chief among them has been the ability to close DC General as quickly as possible, ensure the site will well serve families experiencing homelessness, and ensure we have a good deal for the city
Closing DC General Quickly
The initial site proposed for Ward 6 – 700 Delaware Avenue, SW – cannot be opened quickly. I’ve pushed aggressively on questions related to zoning changes and historic review. After several inquiries and over the course of public hearings, it became clear that this was the only proposed site in the plan that would require lengthy reviews of necessary zoning changes and historic preservation considerations to accommodate the proposed building. Those delays would ensure that this site could not meet the goal to open in 2018. The new site at 200 K Street, NW is District-owned land and is already zoned for the appropriate height and density of a proposed building. This new site should allow the District to move forward more quickly.
Serving Families Experiencing Homelessness
In each of the new facilities, extensive on-site services, including case management, will better serve our families in crisis. The initial location proposed for Ward 6 is small – requiring the facility to be co-located and shoe-horned around an existing historic church building currently used for arts and entertainment. While the initial proposal is much better than conditions found at DC General, the limited footprint of the property means the dorm-style rooms would be small and would not accommodate private bathrooms. Outdoor space would be minimal. And though the site at 700 Delaware Avenue, SW has access to transit and park space, the new site at 200 K Street, NW has three Metro stations within a half mile and nearly a dozen bus lines within a few blocks. In addition, this new site is less than two blocks from both a library and a recreation center, and is near affordable shopping for necessities. The larger site could also support bigger units, private bathrooms, and quality outdoor space for children. The site is also large enough to accommodate the relocation of a health clinic and an intake center for services, if desired by the city, as well as the possibility for additional development or housing on the site. These factors mean the new site can better accommodate and serve our neighbors and families experiencing homelessness.
Ensuring A Good Deal for the City
While this type of temporary emergency housing is not comparable in costs to standard housing or apartments, I have an obligation to ensure a fair deal for our city. The budget numbers seen in the initial proposal were significant, and understandably raised questions. I was very concerned that by leasing private land, we would spend millions of dollars for much needed emergency housing but have nothing to show for it when the leases ended in 15 or 20 years. Building on public land will help ensure our investment stays with the District, as well as avoids a scenario where a private owner sells the building and lease with a major profit made on the backs of the taxpayers and homeless families. Building this important city resource on city-owned land is a better long-term investment for the District, saves $165 million in tax dollars over the proposed life of the initial leases, and protects that investment by having the city own it outright.
From the beginning, I’ve said that I view this effort as an “and” not an “or” scenario. I think we can close DC General, create smaller neighborhood-based facilities, AND get a good deal for the city. Beginning with the Mayor’s focus to develop a plan of action, and now with the action by the Council today, I believe we have taken a major step in that direction.