Posts about Homelessness
Two people died in a fire last week in a vacant low-rise apartment building in Fairlawn. Meanwhile, Mayor Gray pledged $100 million towards new affordable housing. The two together present a clarion call for solutions to the housing problems east of the Anacostia River.
Community activist William Alston-El outside of the former Parkway Guest House, 1262 Talbert Street SE. Photos by the author.
"Marion Barry told Gray the only way he's going to get re-elected, if the Feds don't get him first, is if he plays that affordable housing game," said community activist William Alston-El. "But it ain't a game, it's a matter of life and death. His pledge is too late for them two. [Mayor Gray] needs to come out to the neighborhood and see how people on the lower level are living."
Over the past year, Alston-El and I have toured the Anacocostia neighborhood's extensive portfolio of abandominiums. As dangerous as guns, HIV/AIDS, alcohol, and drugs, the accessibility of vacant properties is a public health concern.
What happened at 1704 R Street SE?
Anacostia High School just down the way, a group of women sit with a child on the front stoop of 1706 R Street SE, next door to the boarded-up middle row building, 1704 R Street SE, where a two-alarm fire took the lives of 2 squatters days before. Yellow tape surrounds the scene. Police cruisers idle across the street as we walk by acknowledging their presence.
The smell of smoke and burnt wood is still thick in the air. "It smells like death out here," Alston-El says before explaining his connection to one of the deceased; he boxed with her brother while imprisoned in Lorton. "There aren't too many Toogoods around." We walk around to the alley to investigate.
A large sandy colored cat bounds over a backyard fence and suddenly stops, plopping down in the charred remnants in the rear of 1704 R Street SE. "Get away from here," yells an onsite fire restoration specialist as the feline scurries away. He approaches us and asks our credentials, "We're reporters looking for the truth," Alston-El offers.
At that the man who says he's been "standing next to dead bodies for 10 hours," begins to tell us the circumstances he knows.
"All indications are that the four-apartment building had been modified by the people who had been living here without permission," he says. "The bottom right dwelling, how you got into it, before the fire, was you opened the door but someone took a piece of plywood and sheeted that off from the inside probably for their own protection against someone injuring them while they were sleeping. That became the cause of death.
"When the fire started in this room here, in the back right, and I mean right because everything in construction is discussed facing the front of the building, so when it started in the back right and really started to spread it's really very difficult for the human mind to run through 1,400 degrees."
I ask if the cause of fire is known. "No, that's under investigation. So they didn't have a way out and were overcome by smoke. Passed out. There was no skin injury when we found them they just suffocated from lack of oxygen. The entire inside of the building is 100% unstable. My job is to structurally support the building so they can do an investigation to answer the question you just asked which is, 'How did it start?'"
Reports from the DC Fire Department corroborate the restorationist's details. "After the heavy volume of fire was knocked down, units re-entered the building, where they located two civilian fatalities. Two firefighters were hurt in the early stages of the firefight and taken to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries."
According to Alston-El, Toogood was an alcoholic with a bad leg and had been living in the abandominium for three years. "No wonder she didn't make it out. Somebody was firing up their drugs, something went wrong and they dipped out leaving that fire behind."
Police have been canvassing the neighborhood seeking information and any eyewitness accounts of a third party fleeing the blaze.
With a housing crisis, buildings should not remain vacant
Mayor Gray made it a priority in his State of the District address to provide more affordable housing. One place to start is to push for action on existing abandoned buildings the city already owns, or where bureaucratic hurdles are blocking owners' progress.
Take the sprawling Bruxton abandominiums at 1700-1720 W Street SE, still owned by the "DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA SUITE 317" according to tax records. A sign from the Department of Housing and Community Development announces "No Trespassing or Dumping."
In separate colors someone from the neighborhood has spray painted "FUCK" "CRuddy" just beneath the sign. The winter has slowed the ivy's growth which has begun to cover the banner advertising "spacious" 2 bedroom / 2 bath homes "coming soon."
The District has given affordable housing developer Manna the rights to redevelop the Bruxton, but it remains boarded-up and vacant to this day. A Manna staff member commented in March of last year:
SE Manna, Inc. is committed to making this property part of a vibrant Anacostia community. Manna was awarded the property in 2009 through the District's PADD program and began developing the property as the Buxton Condominium. Along the way, Manna has invested over $300,000 in pre-development costs and has encountered several "speed bumps" those in the affordable housing field would be very familiar with, including:City needs help reporting abandominiums
- Permitting issues dues to lack of water availability;
- The District's Department of Housing and Community Development terminated our contract on the building, though we were in compliance with all terms. This decision was reversed through the intervention of Mayor Gray, Deputy Mayor Hoskins and DHCD Dir. John Hall;
- The units were originally priced from $170,000-$205,000. Manna soon realized that the market in this neighborhood could not bear that price, applied and received funding through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program to reduce prices to $95,000-$140,000.
Manna is currently in compliance with all terms required by DHCD and its private lender, including 9 units pre-sold. The Buxton is awaiting DHCD approval to move forward and we are eager to begin this project, and continue to market the available units to qualified buyers.
Although the city owns its share of abandominiums or has initiated the long and involved litigious process of getting vacant or blighted properties back into productive use, the greatest number of abandominiums are held by tax delinquents, absentee owners, or dissolved companies.
"Because these vacant properties are privately owned, we are bound by very tight statute on what we can reasonably do," said head of the DC Office of Consumer and Regulatory Afair's Vacant Building Enforcement Division, Reuben Pemberton, respected in Anacostia for his responsiveness and attendance at civic meetings.
Pemberton works with 4 investigators. In order to classify a property as vacant or blighted it has to have two inspections.
"We have a lot of eyes out there in the neighborhood. People can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 202-442-4332 to report a property," Pemberton said. DCRA's Vacant Building Enforcement division performed more than 4,200 inspections in fiscal year 2012 and is on schedule to do more than 5,000 this year.
The days of metal detectors and risky bathrooms seem a thing of the past at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, but one thing has not changed. The library remains a destination for the homeless and lost souls of Washington.
In a city brimming with specialized research libraries, university libraries, and governmental libraries, the DC Public library is the people's library. 24 branches, many newly built or renovated, serve residents in neighborhoods throughout the city's quadrants, while the flagship MLK Library serves the whole.
With the Board of Library Trustees meeting on Wednesday to discuss the future of the MLK Library, now is the time to also think broadly about the building's immediate needs. One key issue is that the library must acknowledge and reach out to its most loyal but underserved patrons: the homeless.
Library has little recourse against problem patrons
"There was some man outside of the children's section talking loudly about killing children," an unsettled mother with a young child in tow told a library police officer one Sunday earlier this year, as she hastened to make her exit. "There he is," she said, pointing out a diminutive bearded and disheveled man simultaneously making his way out of the building.
While the woman and her child exited the library, the officer quickly stopped and questioned the man. As with incidents of lewd sexual acts, drunkenness, drug use, threats against staff and even occurrences of patrons destroying and defacing books, the library police have but two options: 1) call the Metropolitan Police Department and 2) issue a subsequent ban on that patron from re-entering the library for a certain period of time.
A staff member who spoke on the condition of anonymity said, looking out over a room with no less than a half dozen patrons sleeping, "There is literally nothing we can do. Don't get me wrong, we have people who have been coming here for years. They read, don't bother anyone. Some copy passages out of books. They might use the bathroom to clean up and that's it. Every day is the same. But then we have some people who really need help. This is not where they should be."
Other cities have social workers to help the homeless
DC is not unlike other cities whose downtown libraries serve homeless populations, but unlike other cities, the DC Public Library does nearly nothing to address the constant concerns of staff and patrons. According to administrative sources, the DC Library has a roving case manager on staff but he or she is rarely, if ever, seen at MLK, where there's a large homeless concentration.
The DC Library administration could follow the lead of the San Francisco Public Library system, which has "turned the page" on dealing with the homeless who patronize their main library. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, in late January 2009 the San Francisco system became the first in the country to address its longstanding problems (no different than what goes on at MLK) with homeless patrons by bringing on a full-time psychiatric social worker.
Through an inter-governmental partnership with the San Francisco Department of Public Health, the library hired the social worker to be "on hand five days a week handling complaints from staff and patrons about people's behavior, and calling in security only if things get really ugly."
Along with helping homeless patrons to find other services in the city, including housing and food assistance, job training, substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling, and literacy tutoring, library workers received training in responding to unpleasant behavior.
Not stopping there, the San Francisco system instituted a 12-week "vocational rehabilitation" program for the library's homeless and formerly homeless population. Upon completion, graduates are hired to work in the system. The DC Library already has a similar program in place, Teens of Distinction, which trains city youth to work in low-level administrative support positions, often the teenagers' first job experience.Community Action Agency is already well aware of MLK Library's homeless population and their needs. Through a partnership with other city agencies case management and direct services could begin to be tracked and better delivered.
Without an organized city effort local universities, non-profits and church groups regularly perform service outreach projects at the library. For example, on many evenings hot meals and backpacks stuffed with personal hygiene products and new socks are distributed at the corner of 9th & G Street underneath the shelter of the library's Mies Van Der Rohe designed arcade.
While the American Library Association has released information on how to serve homeless patrons, the DC library administration appears uninterested. By not addressing this need, the current library administration enables a culture of dependency among its homeless instead of a culture of self-improvement, and turns away other potential patrons who are intimidated by the homeless presence.
Yesterday, dozens of homeless families came to the John A. Wilson Building to take part in the budget process. They asked the DC Council to restore money for homeless services that was cut in Mayor Gray's proposed budget for next year.
Their argument was simple: There are more and more kids and parents in our city who have no place to sleep, and without a safe place to rest, our civic ambitions of improving education, getting jobs, and making DC a better city simply can't happen.
Maintaining homeless services is also better for the District's bottom line: While homeless cuts balance the budget now, when winter comes and DC has a legal obligation to house families, we will likely end up spending a lot more.
Since 2008, family homelessness has increased by 75 percent. According to the city's Department of Human Services, 3,187 DC residents in families with children have no home right now. That is up from 2,688 in 2011. This is the fourth year of significant increases.
Demand is up, but our supply of housing and available resources is going down. Mayor Gray's proposed budget has a $7 million gap in funding for homeless services, due to federal funds that will not be available in fiscal year 2013. These funds are needed simply to maintain the status quo from this past year and won't allow the family shelters to remain open year-round. It is in our best interest
As a city, we can choose to tackle this difficult issue or we can wish that the problem will go away and these families will just find a place to stay. In the end, it's sort of counterintuitive, but "the hope the problem goes away" approach is the more expensive option.
Here's why. The District does not have a legal obligation to house families in warm weather, but when it is hypothermia season
You read right As we look to next year, the problem is likely to be worse. Ten to 12 families request shelter each week, but DC will not shelter any newly homeless families until hypothermia season. It is likely that once the shelter opens to new families, the need will again overwhelm existing capacity. DCFPI estimates that if the need for shelter matches that of fiscal year 2012, DHS will need to house up to 296 families per night in motels, at a total cost of nearly $7.5 million. DC needs a plan to move families out of the shelter and motels and into stable living arrangements. This will free up space to meet emergency need throughout the year and prevent our reliance on expensive motel rooms that do not meet the needs of families. We can improve the lives of these families and the city's pocketbook by making a strategic investment in homeless services. Mayor Gray and the DC Council should fully fund homeless services and move these families and our city forward. Cross-posted at The District's Dime.
As we look to next year, the problem is likely to be worse. Ten to 12 families request shelter each week, but DC will not shelter any newly homeless families until hypothermia season. It is likely that once the shelter opens to new families, the need will again overwhelm existing capacity. DCFPI estimates that if the need for shelter matches that of fiscal year 2012, DHS will need to house up to 296 families per night in motels, at a total cost of nearly $7.5 million.
DC needs a plan to move families out of the shelter and motels and into stable living arrangements. This will free up space to meet emergency need throughout the year and prevent our reliance on expensive motel rooms that do not meet the needs of families. We can improve the lives of these families and the city's pocketbook by making a strategic investment in homeless services. Mayor Gray and the DC Council should fully fund homeless services and move these families and our city forward.
Cross-posted at The District's Dime.
Today, we're trying an experimental format for the links: Twitter style.
- US DOT: Lowest traffic fatalities in 60 years (Transportation Nation, @marctomik)
- "We don't want to come off as NIMBYs." But Arlington residents don't want a homeless shelter in their backyard (Post, @_jpscott)
- The London Tube's central Zone 1 is very pricey, so a map shows how to get off outside and take bike share (Ollie O'Brien)
- What are public/private partnerships PPPs? Where are they in the US and internationally? (Brookings, @bogrosemary)
- What to get for the cargobike lover who has everything (& kids)? (Bike Noun Verb, @KidicalMassDC, @IMGoph)
- On Friday, @beyonddc exposed the folly of highway "Level of Service." Now @e_jaffe takes on local street LOS (Atlantic Cities, @vebah)
- An experiemental system can disable drivers' phones in the car without affecting passengers' phones (Daily Mail, Steve S.)
- Lance's feelings about bike lanes in cartoon form (The Onion, @JoelLawsonDC)
Our current Breakfast Link editors are looking to move on from curating the links each day. Meanwhile, many of our contributors now use Twitter, and can submit or curate items through that service.
We decided to try creating a links post collaboratively, by building the post from tweets contributors and readers sent in to a new Twitter account, @GGWashTips, plus some from our regular tip queue. This is the result.
Have a tip for the tweets? Tweet it to @GGWashTips.
Want to edit the Breakfast Links in either the old style or this one? Email us at email@example.com.
The often maligned Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library may move to a new building at a different location. A panel of developers and planners associated with the Urban Land Institute could make that recommendation later this month.
"It's important to note that the panel will not address the need for a central library," Chief Librarian Ginnie Cooper said. She continued, "the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library will continue to exist and be located downtown." Instead, the five-day advisory panel will discuss the ideal location for a downtown central library.
According to the DC Public Library (DCPL), "national research suggests that a central library should be about 225,000 - 250,000 square feet." At 400,000 square feet there is a desire to either downsize MLK, the only city library open on Sundays, or construct a smaller future central library. The panel will discuss "potential uses of and development around" the MLK library, and conduct interviews with library users and community leaders.
An anchor of downtown since its opening in August 1972, the library was the city's first public memorial to the slain civil rights leader. Momentum to build a new central library began during the second mayoral administration of Anthony Williams. Released in November 2006, a report by the Mayor's Blue Ribbon Task Force recommended an overhaul of the neighborhood branches and the replacement of "the current functionally obsolete central library."
With a price tag of nearly $300 million, President Bush proposed $30 million in federal funds for a new downtown library. The current site of CenterCity DC was discussed as the most logic location. However, Williams' administration was unable to push a proposal through the DC Council.
The DCPL Board of Trustees first mentioned the ULI panel at their meeting last month. When a smattering of questions arose about the intent of the panel, and whether the library's name honoring MLK was safe, it was clarified that no matter where the central library is located, it will retain Martin Luther King Jr.'s name, and continue to be a memorial to him.
Problems at the library
Since Cooper arrived in August 2006, MLK Library has undergone important functional and cosmetic upgrades making the building more inviting. The public bathrooms are no longer dungeons, the Black Studies and Children's Divisions have been refurbished, and a metal detector no longer greets visitors upon entry. The Adaptive Services Division, helping the deaf community, visually impaired, older adults, veterans and injured service people, received updated technology, the light plane of the ceiling of the Great Hall was revamped to better illuminate the cavernous lobby, and in 2009 a new room opened for teens.
However, MLK Library is still perceived as a homeless shelter and nicknamed "MLK Mission." The pervasiveness of the homeless and those with mental health issues obscure the library's vast collections and resources, according to members of the library staff.
The homeless are supported by a network of social service agencies such as the United Planning Organization. In the morning and evening, buses to and from homeless shelters use the front entrance of the library as a drop-off and pick-up point. G Place NW, behind the library, was the location point until the Secret Service objected.
Future of MLK Library
"The design of the building, while iconic as architecture, has failed to create the type of loved, dynamic and heavily used central library that would best serve the city," says Terry Lynch, a community activist who served on Mayor Williams' Blue Ribbon Task Force on libraries. "It is past time for a state of the art, new central library and conversion of this building to a more appropriate, adaptive reuse."
Over the next year MLK's first floor will be undergoing significant changes. A solicitation for proposals to "complete the interior improvements to the Business Science and Technology Reading Room and the Great Hall" closed two months ago. Construction is planned to be completed by August 2012.
Robin Diener with the Library Renaissance Project says citizens have advocated for a Citizens Task Force on the Future of MLK since the Williams Administration. Diener says, "In our view, the information gathered by a ULI panel could be a very useful contribution to the complete picture, but it should be presented to a task force of library users from around the city that Mayor Vincent Gray should appoint."
The ULI panel will present their finding and recommendations November 18th, 9 am to 11 am at MLK Library. The public is invited and encouraged to participate.
Anacostia residents are eager to create a vibrant main street. But plans to put a homeless shelter in the middle of the business district, especially one without any ground-floor retail component, would impede Historic Anacostia's progress.
Lydia DePillis reported in the Washington City Paper that Calvary Women's Services will be opening a women's homeless shelter at 1217-1219 Good Hope Road SE.
Though this project has been in the works for months, many community leaders learned of the shelter through an email blast from Chairman Kwame Brown last week.
I am a small business owner on the 2000 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Ave SE, which is around the corner from the proposed homeless shelter. My personal preference is to have more options for lunch and dinner in the business district.
While there is indeed a need for social services in the neighborhood, many residents east of the river worry that an overabundance of such facilities will stifle revitalization efforts. Chris Jerry, Vice President of the Fairlawn Citizens Association, stated, "Ward 8, and the portion of Ward 7 Fairlawn, soon to be redistricted to Ward 8, the areas closest to the bridges that begin or end east of the Anacostia River, have been overrun with social program facilities."
The homeless shelter would be right in the middle of the business district and less than a block from a methadone clinic, also location on Good Hope Road SE, which according to Mr. Jerry "serves addicts not only from DC, but suburban Virginia and Maryland too."
Over the last four years the 1200 Block of Good Hope Road has experienced some positive changes. ARCH Development Corporation open the Honfleur Art Gallery in 2007 to bring art to the community and display art of local residents through its annual East of the River show. The newly constructed Anacostia Gateway I, located at end intersection of Good Hope Road and Martin Luther King Jr Ave SE, opened in 2009.
Putting aside that the newcomer to the block is a homeless shelter, the larger question is why put a 100% residential building in the middle of a business district?
At its proposed location there could have been more creativity by making the project mixed-use. Calvary could locate a restaurant or retail business on the street level where the residents of the homeless shelter could have employment and gain some skills. The residences could be on the upper floor. This would allow for provision of social services and create jobs, while energizing the street level.
As if it is wasn't hard enough to get economic development East of the River, decisions like this make empty store fronts more unattractive for potential businesses. Main streets like Good Hope Road in Historic Anacostia should have commerce that creates employment and cultivates new businesses.
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