Allen Promises Community Engagement on SW Shelter Design

Community Advisory Group to Be Formed

During a community meeting held at Friendship Baptist Church on June 22, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen promised there would be Southwest community input into the design of the short term family housing planned for 850 Delaware Ave. SW. The land, now the site of Unity Health Care's Southwest Clinic, is bordered by a small, grassy Federal Reservation 220 on the north, Delaware Avenue to the west, I Street to the south and Telesis Corporation's Randall School Project on the east. Owed by the city, it is zoned R-4 which restricts structural height to 40 feet in height and lot occupancy to 40 percent.

Starting by observing that the “massive centralized site (at DC General) has not been successful,” Allen narrated the course of events that led to the selection of the 850 Delaware location. While he had always supported Mayor Muriel Bowser's plan to close DC General, Allen had became convinced that her proposal to locate a shelter next to the Blind Whino at 700 Delaware Ave. SW would not pass zoning and historic reviews.

Initially, the council considered a northwest alternative, Allen stated. However, after discussions with the mayor and developers, it appeared a facility on the site would take many years to complete. So, the 850 Delaware site, a location suggested by community members and ANC 6D, came up for reconsideration.

Allen still had concerns. Firstly, the 850 Delaware site had been put forwarded by housing advocates and the ANC as the perfect candidate for a “Build First” replacement of the nearby Greenleaf Gardens public housing. Would its use for a shelter inhibit this? Secondly, how would the existing health clinic continue to serve the community? Allen secured a mayoral commitment to Build First at Greenleaf that was codified in the council's homeless bill. He also got the city to agree to incorporate a renovated health clinic into the new facility.

In the end, Allen claimed, the Council's new plan saved taxpayers $165 million by moving all the proposed short term family housing to publicly owned land. Unfortunately, the relocation forced DC Department of General Services (DGS) to scrap its existing plans and start from scratch. However, unlike the earlier scenario, there are no issues of historic preservation with the new site. So, the existing building can be entirely demolished, Allen pointed out.

Allen stated that he had secured the support of both Unity Health Care and Telesis for the 850 Delaware location. Both were present at the community meeting. Lastly, Allen reassured the audience that the Southwest community would be engaged in shelter's design and operation. He promised to form a community advisory body over the summer for this purpose.

Allen's remarks received a mixed reception. One audience member, who identified herself as recent purchaser of a nearby townhouse, stated, “Why of all of a sudden is this down the street?” She complained the council's decision lacked “transparency.” She demanded deals of the security planned for the site; and also how the neighborhood would facility's non-profit operator accountable should there be problems.

The proposed site's small size, housing only 50 families, will make accountability and security much easier than DC General, countered Allen. Both would be codified during the contracting process, which would require Council approval. The smaller size will also make it easier to attract qualified providers as operators. There will be both 24-hour security and social services onsite, he added.

A representative of the DC Department of Human Services (DHS) clarified that the facility's population would consist only of adults who had custody of a minor child. “I don't see them (facility residents) as a threat,” stated Allen adding he had confidence in the current DHS leadership.

Robert Hall, president of the nearby Capitol Park IV condominium townhouses, told Allen that the facility must function as “part of the neighborhood.” He suggested incorporating a corner coffee shop into the design. “We want to be engaged on all those levels,” he stated.

“My intention is that community engagement will be substantive and meaningful,” pledged Allen.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Stacy Braverman Cloyd (6D02), whose single member district includes the 850 Delaware site, raised three concerns. Firstly, would the facility have parking adequate to serve both clients and staff? The councilmember promised to ensure this as part of allowing community input into the facility's design.

Cloyd then asked how the continuity of Unity's operations would be ensured. Allen stated that he was already working with the organization to find an interim site in the neighborhood.

Cloyd also questioned whether local schools had the resources to deal with an influx of new students housed at the facility. Under federal law, homeless students have the right to stay at their existing schools, Allen pointed out. At Payne Elementary, the in-boundary school for DC General, there had been an average of 10 students a year from the shelter, he said. Moreover, the schools such students attend qualify under DC law for extra funding at-risk and homeless children on a per pupil basis. Allen committed to monitoring the situation at nearby Amidon-Bowen Elementary and Jefferson Academy.

Lastly, “I encourage you to have one bathroom for every family,” Cloyd stated.

The meeting closed with a number of attendees expressing support for the new facility. “We can't continue to ignore people who have less resources than we do. These are our families,” stated one resident.