Amber Harding: Mayor still has an opportunity to do right by current DC General residents

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Last week, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration rightfully celebrated the opening of the first DC General replacement shelter, which is scheduled to welcome its first residents soon. Called The Kennedy, the shelter is a 45-unit building located in Ward 4. Nine of the families staying there will have private bathrooms, and the remaining 36 families will share 18 bathrooms that are lockable but accessible to more than one family. Each unit will have a place for food storage and a small refrigerator. There is also shared space for cafeterias (with food provided at mealtimes), activities, services, laundry, and homework or computer use. I have not toured it yet, but every indication is that it is a beautiful space that is unequivocally superior to both DC General and the overflow hotels.

The opening of The Kennedy — as well as the upcoming ribbon-cutting for The Horizon in Ward 7’s Marshall Heights neighborhood on Tuesday — is a good reminder that soon DC will have six replacement shelters open, DC General will be closed, and the family-shelter system will be more humane than it was when Muriel Bowser entered office. Those of us at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless join in celebrating this progress. As we as a community reflect on how we have arrived at this milestone, however, we must cultivate institutional memory from which to learn. This process has had low points — some of them heartbreaking — and we aren’t quite at the finish line yet.

We at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless want to praise the “apartment-like aesthetic” of The Kennedy, but we remember that it was the Bowser administration that successfully erased the legal requirement for these units to actually be apartment-style, each with a private bathroom and kitchen. Officials justified that campaign by saying that families stay longer in shelter when they have private bathrooms — even though the administration knew that statement was contradicted by data, and even when we cautioned that they were spreading a pernicious myth about poor black families. We want to praise the administration for the immense political capital it takes to open new shelters in neighborhoods, but we remember how hard Mayor Bowser fought (ultimately futilely) to give developers inflated contracts for these shelters. If she had won that battle, it would have been at the expense both of taxpayers and families who are homeless, some of whom would have been forced to live in an industrial zone surrounded by toxins.

We want to applaud the fact that The Kennedy is opening on time, but we cannot forget that the shelters in wards 7 and 8 are opening late; that we are far off from the openings of the shelters in wards 3, 5 and 6; and that the mayor reneged on her original commitment to close DC General only when all the replacement shelters were ready. (Meanwhile, as expected, hotel usage has ballooned almost as much as the DC General census has gone down.)

Most critically, we hold our joy for the families who will move into The Kennedy and The Horizon with our fear for the remaining families at DC General. Just one day before the Sept. 26 ribbon-cutting, the mayor and officials from the Department of General Services and the Department of Human Services spoke at a breakfast with the DC Council about the closure of DC General. They stated that the lead abatement process on Building 9 had been completed, and that they would begin demolition of that building within the next week. They also confirmed that 55 families remained at DC General, and that they anticipated the last family exiting by the end of October, at which point they would close the shelter. About 10 families were expected to move out to housing this week, leaving 45 families remaining at DC General — at various stages of finding and leasing housing units — while demolition is underway.

Despite being asked repeatedly, the Bowser administration has refused to give anyone a straight answer as to why the demolition has to take place while the families are still there. Over 1,200 individuals, 50 organizations and eight council members have asked Mayor Bowser to delay demolition until the families are gone. Let’s assume that she has an urgent reason to demolish the building this month that she cannot, or will not, divulge. Here are the choices Mayor Bowser is presented with today:

  1. Leave the 45 families at DC General throughout October and close the shelter at the end of the month. This means that, while The Kennedy sits mostly vacant, families will be at DC General while demolition is occurring. This option risks respiratory crises, lead poisoning and other illnesses for about 90 children and their parents who have no ability to go anywhere else but DC General.
  2. Give each of the remaining families the option of transferring immediately from DC General to The Kennedy while they finalize their housing search. Some families may decide that the inconvenience of having to move twice within a short period of time is worth it if they can avoid the health risks, noise and stress of nearby demolition. This option opens up the possibility of closing DC General early if a substantial number of families transfer quickly.

Opening the Kennedy and the Horizon is truly something to celebrate. It remains to be seen, however, whether it will be a celebration tempered by the Bowser administration’s decision to leave the new shelters mostly vacant while families at DC General are put at risk, or whether the administration will seize this opportunity to do right by the families remaining at DC General.

Amber Harding is an attorney with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.

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  1. […] with six smaller-scale facilities throughout the city. A coalition of homeless advocates, however, continues to press the Bowser administration to hold off demolition work at the DC General site until the remaining […]