Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Homelessness


Where were critics of the homeless shelter deal on all the other, worse deals?

When DC mayor Muriel Bowser announced she'd close the DC General homeless shelter and replace it with smaller shelters in all of DC's wards, everyone knew there'd be pushback. Now it's ratcheted up in the form of a slick video. But the video makes a point that could equally apply to many other, less worthy actions too. So why now?

Not only does this video have fancy production values, the group behind it, the anonymous "DC Residents for Responsible Government," also paid for it to be a sponsored post on Facebook and run as an ad before YouTube videos, and possibly other places as well.

The video highlights the widely-reported facts that the replacement homeless shelters involve building on land which in many cases is owned by big donors to the Bowser campaign, and at seemingly unnecessarily high prices.

This isn't a non-issue, and the fact that the costs seem so high and the outcome so favorable to certain donors has clearly hamstrung this otherwise-worthy initiative. It's left many supportive activists frustrated. They'd absolutely expected well-heeled neighbors of many shelters to fight against the idea—the recent HBO minisieries Show Me a Hero depicted exactly how communities react to this kind of thing. But they didn't expect to have to defend such questionable economics, too.

Still, this won't be the first time DC spends more than might be necessary on an economic development deal. Yet people only will spend the money to create a glossy animated video when we're talking about a deal that also challenges exclusivity in some parts of the city. DC Jobs with Justice pointed this out in a series of tweets:

(If you want to learn more about some of these controversies, we have numerous articles on the Wizards arena in Ward 8, including an op-ed by Elissa Silverman; the LivingSocial tax break from 2012; and RFK Stadium many many times.)

This debate is reminiscent of ones in the world of transit as well. Many people rightly point out that transit projects are often more expensive than elsewhere in the world. It's right to ask how they can be built more cheaply. That said, road projects are also comparably expensive. If people ignore transit's cost, then we won't get much transit. But if pundits only talk about transit projects' cost and not road projects too, they're putting transit at an even greater disadvantage.

DC needs to be fiscally responsible in all its economic development deals. But closing DC General and putting shelters all across the city is also an important goal. Let's hope the anonymous people opposing the shelters do a snazzy video if DC tries to give a sweetheart deal for a new football stadium which will only move a team a couple of miles. Chances are they won't.


At a hearing on DC General, opposition runs the gamut from rational to prejudicial

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser has a plan to close DC General and put smaller homeless shelters in all eight wards of the city. There's a lot of opposition, ranging from concerns about shelters going up in dangerous places to positions that seem more about keeping poor minorities out of certain parts of the city.

Photo by Kai Hendry on Flickr.

Everyone agrees that the decrepit DC General Family Shelter needs to go; it's notorious for being a place where families and children share space with mold, mice, raccoons, and bats, along with geysering water mains and collapsing, leaky ceilings.

Bowser's plan is to distribute the 250 beds at DC General across sites across the city, each holding a maximum of 50 people. Over 150 citizens, non-profit leaders, and activists packed the Wilson Building for the DC Council's Thursday, March 17th hearing on the shelter plan. There were over 90 public testimonies over 13 hours, a level of engagement that underscores how much emotion and outrage there is on the matter.

At this point, there are two clear camps: Those who have enough concerns about Bowser's plan that they don't think it should move forward, and those who acknowledge it to be imperfect but who think it should.

The plan doesn't have to be perfect, say supporters

Among the supporters was a group organized by the Washington Interfaith Network, including pastors, citizens from across many wards, and former residents of DC General themselves.

"If everyone nitpicks this proposal," said a former DC General resident, "I am concerned that this plan will fall apart, and DC General Family Shelter will still be standing with families living in horrible conditions."

Councilmember Jack Evans shared the same sentiment in his opening remarks, saying "What I don't want to leave here with, what I don't want to happen today, is that we end up doing nothing. And that is a real possibility."

Opponents present factual and "veiled" arguments

Some people, however, aren't sold on the plan. A number of attendees followed a formula that's familiar for development projects of all kinds, raising concerns about mismanaged taxpayer money, a lack of transparency in the process, and worries about the buildings' designs.

One key argument against it comes from Ward 5, where the current proposal location is in an industrial area, surrounded by a bus depot, strip clubs, and no easy-to-access public transit. Residents, advocacy groups, and Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie all seriously questioned placing 50 some families in such a place.

Other arguments also have some legitimacy. Some of the units are surprisingly expensive, and many of the developers getting contracts are largely known Bowser backers.

But at the hearing, some of these concerns seemed closer to having roots in excluding "other" people from living in certain neighborhoods. Many people started statements with something like, "I am not against homeless people moving into my neighborhood, but...," which Councilmember Elissa Silverman referred to as "veiled challenges."

Other opponents left less up for interpretation: "The same problems that are at DC General are going to be moved across the street [from us]," said one witness.

Inside DC General. Photo from Homeless Children's Playtime Project.

In April, the DC Council will vote on how to move forward.

The issue of how to replace DC General has brought about themes and arguments that commonly surface any time a new development with new housing becomes a possibility for a DC neighborhood. Sifting through moral cover and deflections, as well as veiled attempts to keep "those" people out, is all too familiar territory. Those of us working to reshape a city that historically has warehoused people in overcrowded shelters and on blighted, ignored blocks should take note, and prepare for future hearings.


Muriel Bowser announces eight sites for homeless shelters

DC is working to close the homeless shelter at DC General and replace it with smaller shelters spread around the city. Today, Mayor Bowser announced where they will go and a set of public engagement meetings to discuss the plan.

Image from NBC Washington.

The DC General shelter has needed replacement for a long, long time. Spreading homeless residents out around the city is generally a good move. To segregate all homelessness in one part of the city forces all of the residents to one area and also concentrates the negative impacts of a shelter.

While a big facility does have some economies of scale and makes it easier to offer some services to all of the residents with staff in a single location, it's not fair for some parts of the city to be able to push all of this necessary service to someone else's community. Living in a mixed-income area instead of an all-homeless enclave also can benefit the shelter residents themselves.

Bowser set as a goal to place one new shelter in each of DC's eight wards.

Our contributors weighed in on the choice of locations.

Kelli Raboy wrote: "It seems like most of the sites have access to at least some transit (mostly frequent bus routes), so that's good."

Neil Flanagan added:

The one in Ward 3 is sort of in between Glover Park and the Cathedral, not ideal from a transit perspective, but it is a lot that's been empty for a while, and it's a lovely neighborhood with decent access to services.

All over, it seems to be in line with expectations of not only equity on principle, but also the benefits of distributing social services more evenly.

Gray Kimbrough brought up an eternal question with social services and below-market housing: It's cheaper to put it in the lowest-cost parts of the city, but spreading it out can be better for the people getting the services and for the communities that would otherwise have the concentration. But it's more expensive.
The 213-bed women's shelter stuck out to me, especially when I realized that it's a prime Chinatown location. This is much of the backstory.

This is taking the place of new residential development which surely could have been traded for a new, less prime location. But it's certainly transit accessible.

It also seems possible to me that that might be the only one to open any time soon (since the article says the others are slated for 2018 at best).

Canaan Merchant elaborated on the tradeoffs:
It would be important to note that the best places for equity might not be the best places to get a good deal for costs. This is an important distinction when you have a lot of stuff moving to places east of the river because it costs less to do things over there but residents criticize though decisions because they say that keeps the area depressed.
Finally, Geoff Hatchard brought up an interesting political side angle:
By explicitly making sure that each ward gets a shelter, you create a situation at redistricting time where you need to make sure you're not moving the lines so one ward gets multiple shelters and another gets none.

Normally, that shouldn't be too difficult to avoid, if you put the shelters closer to the geographic centers of the wards. But, many of these are placed near ward boundaries. The proposed locations in Wards 1 through 4 all could, at some point in the near future, create a type of restriction on how redistricting happens.

(Granted, this is speculative, but having been on the redistricting committee last time around for Ward 5, you'd be surprised what gets proposed as 'requirements' for the drawing of lines.)

It's also somewhat interesting how the Ward 7 & 8 locations are so close to the Prince George's County line. It may not be intentional, but it's notable when one looks at the map.

The community meetings are Thursday, February 11, from 6:30-8:30 pm:
  • Ward 1 - Anthony Bowen YMCA, 1325 W Street NW (Conference Room)
  • Ward 2 - One Judiciary Square, 441 4th St NW (Old Council Chambers)
  • Ward 3 - Metropolitan Memorial UMC, 3401 Nebraska Ave NW (Great Hall)
  • Ward 4 - Paul Public Charter School, 5800 8th St NW (Auditorium)
  • Ward 5 - New Canaan Baptist Church, 5800 8th St NW (Auditorium)
  • Ward 6 - Friendship Baptist Church, 900 Delaware St SW
  • Ward 7 - Capitol View Public Library, 5001 Central Ave SE
  • Ward 8 - Matthews Memorial Baptist Church, 2616 MLK Ave SE (Fellowship Hall)
In the long run, the homeless residents really need not shelters but permanent housing. That housing, too, ought to go in many different neighborhoods.

What do you think of the choices?


New developments at Reston Town Center North are closer to breaking ground

Plans are underway for redeveloping the library and homeless shelter that sit on the 50-acre plot north of Reston Town Center. These sites are the first part of a project that aims to build a new street grid with a central park, mixed-use buildings with housing, and a rec center.

The Reston Regional Library will soon get a makeover. Photo from the Reston Association.

To refresh your memory, the boundaries of the fifty-acre area are Reston Hospital on Town Center Parkway to the west, Fountain Drive to the east, Baron Cameron Avenue to the north, and New Dominion Parkway to the south.

The current area will be divided into nine blocks, with a central park of more than two acres. The county will handle redeveloping six of the segments and Inova will develop blocks 2, 4 and 6 separately, which currently has an assisted living facility and a freestanding emergency room.

The only proposed plans to date are the ones from the county for its lots.

The first phase (blocks 7 and 8) will affect the Reston Regional Library and the Embry Rucker Shelter. The Public-Private Partnerships Branch of the Fairfax's Department of Public Works and Environmental Services rolled out a general use plan for the blocks at a meeting last week. The estimated (and optimistic) timeline is to complete the project by 2023.

Rendering from Fairfax County.

Reston Regional Library will be bigger

The proposed replacement library will be 9,000 square feet larger than the existing one, making it one of the largest in the region's library system. In September, residents voiced concerns that the library would get smaller.

The mixed-use building, which will house the library on the ground floor (and perhaps a second level if needed), is expected to have underground parking and also 4,000 square feet for "village model" services such as meeting rooms and space for nonprofit organizations. Additional library redesign suggestions include: enclosed tutoring spaces, separate child and teen areas, a computer lab and flex-use space.

Brainstorming session from the November 4th community meeting. Photo by the author.

The area's homeless shelter will reach more people

The proposed replacement shelter will increase capacity from 70 beds to 90, and will include a new hypothermia center. Per the county meeting handout, "an additional 28,000 square feet [of space] is being considered for use by nonprofits or other entities that are under contract to provide County services."

Residents at the November community meeting recommended making the facility a 24-hour shelter with new daytime and youth programming. One idea I liked was the addition of an onsite thrift shop. Attendees of one breakout group pointed out that shelter residents would need transportation to and from the Reston Metro station.

Some residents thought it might better to locate the new shelter in the other blocks of the redevelopment. This would provide a better co-location with other social services in the area to assist individuals and families improve their quality of living through the Fairfax County Human Services Department and North County Health Center.

The project will include housing, some of it below market rate

The redevelopment will also include retail, office space, and housing. Right now, it looks like there will be between 360 and 420 market-rate housing units, around 50 affordable units, and about 30 supportive housing units, which will transition people out of the shelter..

The amount of office space will likely range from 270,000 to 340,000 square feet depending on the final design plan.

The affordable housing units will be split between residents who make 50% of the area median income (33%) and 65% of the AMI (67%). While the number of apartments might not seem huge, it is a good first step in an area of Reston where new condos can start at $2,040.

Here are some details on the next phase

While it wasn't the main focus of the November community meeting, Fairfax County solicited residents for ideas for the overall development.

A common theme among the four breakout groups of attendees was the need better and safer way to get around by walking. One attendee even recommended that vehicle traffic be put underground. Another wanted to add an underpass to connect the complex to Trader Joe's on the other side of the busy Baron Cameron Avenue.

Other suggestions included a performing arts center, flex space for startups, and rooftop decks. Attendees said they don't want skyscrapers on the property.

Part of Phase 2 will be a 90,000 square foot RECenter developed by the Fairfax County Park Authority; however, there is currently no timeline for this project. Andrew Miller, Project Coordinator from the Public-Private Partnerships Branch of the Fairfax County Department of Public Works and Environmental Services, said the county hopes to be in the final design phase of the project by 2018. Rezoning, the RFP process and development agreements will proceed the design and permit process. Once into construction, the county estimates a 36- to 42-month timeframe.

You can submit questions via email to, and you can follow this development at

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