Mayor Unveils SW Shelter Plan

Neighbors Skeptical

Mayor Bowser addresses a capacity crowd at last Thursday meeting

Mayor Muriel Bowser visited Southwest last Thursday to present the District's plan to build a shelter at 700 Delaware Ave. SW behind the historic Friendship Baptist Church, now home of Blind Whino Art Gallery.

Addressing at capacity crowd at Friendship Baptist Church, the mayor framed the decision to build the local shelter within the context of her larger initiative aimed at closing DC General.

Framing the Issue

“A city as prosperous and ours must and can do better by families who are vulnerable and in need of a safe place to land on their way to permanency,” the Mayor stated. However, there will always be families that face hard times, she continued, and DC law requires that during the coldest months all families must be sheltered. “Not only is that our law, but my strong sense is that those are values too,” she concluded.

On any given night of the week, there are 1,000 people housed at DC General. Forty percent are of the under the age of 2. The Mayor’s proposal for eight new, smaller, and smarter shelters are part of her larger three-step strategy of prevention; safe, dignified short term housing; and fast transitions to affordable permanent housing that she has claims will end homelessness in the city.

“Homeless can be solved in Washington. It can become rare, brief and non-recurring,” Bowser forcefully stated. However, the problem cannot be solved without a major change in the social service system. The new Southwest shelter is one of eight, one in each ward. Collectively they will have the capacity of DC General but they will be small, well-run, dignified, service enriched, and with outstanding architecture. The new shelters, she assured the audience, will be an “enhancement” for the surrounding community.

Cautioning listeners that “no part of this plan seeks to recreate the experience of the Randall School or what we have at DC General,” Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen threw his support behind the Mayor's plan calling it a “radically different approach.” He challenged the audience to think about how the plan could be successful. The new shelter, Allen argued, could serve as a catalyst for improvements at Landsburg Park, Randall Recreation Center, Amidon Elementary School and the Unity Health Clinic. “We need to make this something we can be proud of,” he concluded.

The Plan

Director of the Department of General Services, Admiral Christopher Weaver, and Chair of the DC Interagency Council on Homelessness, Christie Greenwald walked the audience through details of the mayor’s plan.

By 2018, the plan anticipates constructing 271 units of emergency family housing at eight sites to replace the current capacity of DC General. Weaver explained that this past Fall, the city had issued a Request for Proposals for possible sites and at the same time had reviewed the inventory of District-owned properties seeking appropriate parcels. Twenty-six private landowners responded. Eight sites were selected. The criteria were threefold: ability to house a 30,000 to 35,000 square foot facility; easy access to public transportation; availability to meet a completion date of May 2018

The Southwest facility will be located behind the landmarked former Friendship Baptist Church that currently houses the Blind Whino art gallery. The new seven-story building, with a capacity for 50 families, will be designed to blend into the surrounding neighborhood. The city will lease the land from developer Steve Tanner, who will construct an additional four-story building on the northern edge of the parcel.

Currently the site is zoned R-4. The construction of a seven-story building will require rezoning the parcel for higher density and will require an application for a Planned Unit Development (PUD), and an ANC ruling, according to Capitol Hill Restoration Zoning Chair Gary Peterson. The lease for eight sites, their construction costs, and the contracts with non-profit operators also require council approval.

Last Friday, the mayor submitted legislation to exempt the shelter leases from the city procurement laws and limit the council’s review of the construction contracts expected to total more than $40 million. She insists the council approve all eight sites as a package.

The city’s plans for the facilities involve much more than their physical construction. According to Greenwald, the Southwest shelter will feature extensive wrap-around services for its residents, which will include assistance in the search for permanent quarters, healthcare and educational support. :

Above all, the presenters stressed that in contrast with DC General, the facility will welcome neighborhood engagement. Greenwald emphasized that the city will negotiate a “Good Neighbor Agreement” with the local community that will include: standards for facility maintenance; a safety plan; a neighborhood “code of conduct” for residents; and arrangements for respectful communication with neighbors, stated Greenwald. The agreement will be incorporated into contract between the city and the new shelter’s non-profit shelter operator. In addition, she noted that there will be extensive opportunities as well for neighborhood volunteers to aid in the enrichment of the facility’s environment.

The presentations by Weaver and Greenwald were met with skepticism and some outright hostility.

ANC Commissioner Cloyd Engages

The Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Stacy Braverman Cloyd (6D02), whose single member district will play home to the new facility, offered a more skeptical assessment. “I first learned about the plan to locate a shelter on this site at 6 p.m. on Monday night,” stated Cloyd observing sardonically that the news had unexpectedly sparked off a very busy week.

“People are concerned. They're excited. They're angry. They're scared and they are hopeful too. I have felt all those emotions myself, because the location of the proposed shelter is 150 feet from my front door,” Cloyd stated. “If the mayor had asked my opinion on the location of shelters, I would have told her that I don't think this is the best place in ANC 6D, in Southwest or even in my single member district to locate it.”

Cloyd, however, remained open minded about the new facility. “While concerns about the location of the shelter are valid and many of us are going to need a lot of assurances about how it is going to be constructed and operated, I don't want that to be the end of the discussion tonight. We need to take the opportunity to get the mayor and city officials to commit to Southwest,” she said observing that the facility would place heavy demands on a neighborhood that is already home to a great deal of public housing and social services.

“If you are going to put a shelter in our neighborhood, it is going to be one that is ten times cleaner, safer and more effective at getting people into permanent housing than any shelter you have run before,” Cloyd said.

“The shelter has to be a catalyst for good things coming to our community,” Cloyd said challenging the mayor to commit the resources required to renovate the nearby Greenleaf Gardens public housing project. “It makes no sense to commit to bringing in fifty new families without committing to the families that we already have here.” Cloyd urged the mayor to fix the public housing at nearby Green Leaf Gardens before locating a new facility in the neighborhoods

Cloyd also pointed out that the mayor had yet to respond to the detailed letter that ANC 6D had sent to the administration in December outlining its position on any decision to locate a shelter within its boundaries. The ANC’s missive, Cloyd observed tersely, had been met with silence.

Neighbors Share Concerns

Some Southwest residents complained of lack of notice or consultation. Other questioned the shelter’s location in relation with the multi-million dollar development of an art gallery, stores, and 400,000 square feet of market rate housing planned for next-door at historic Randall Junior High School. “The RFP had nothing to do with community input,” stated Robert Sockwell, a nearby Capitol Park IV resident. “I have personally looked at every site you have selected. We are the only one that is near a large development.”

A number in the audience took issue with the facility’s location in a neighborhood already home to three major public housing developments. “We already have James Creek, Syphax, a halfway house and Greenleaf,” stated one man. “We are really (already) doing our part. How many housing projects are Dupont Circle and Kalorama getting?” he asked sarcastically.

One woman with children at Amidon-Bowen Elementary asked about the impact of having the shelter in boundary for the school. Federal law allows homeless students to remain in their home schools, Greenwald replied. Most choose to do so, which will reduce the impact on Amidon.

Not all residents were hostile. Seventy-two year old Robert Stoddard, a long-time resident of the neighborhood and parishioner at the modern Friendship Baptist Church, took issue with his neighbors. “Step outside and feel that cold and thank God that you are not homeless,” he said. “My sister’s kid with five babies is at one of those hotels,” he continued. Stoddard, a volunteer at the Friendship’s soup kitchen, urged neighbors to accept the new facility with an open heart.

Greenwald promised that the Thursday meeting would be the first of many conversations. The administration would be back within eight weeks with an update, she promised. In the meantime, those with concerns were welcome to email or call 202-442-8150. Information on the Ward 6 shelter can be found on DC’s website.