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Posts about Homelessness


Upper Northwest hits peak NIMBY about a homeless shelter

Fifty short-term apartments for homeless residents are likely coming to Idaho Avenue in upper Northwest DC. At a community meeting last night, some residents showed just how much they think the poorest people in DC need to stay far away from their exclusive enclaves.

Helder Gil posted this flyer on Twitter, which people anonymously circulated at a community meeting Thursday night on a proposed homeless shelter next to the police station on Idaho Avenue, between Cleveland Park and Cathedral Heights.

It includes the astoundingly offensive phrase, "Homeless lives matter; the lives of community homeowners matter too."

What's being proposed

Mayor Muriel Bowser set a very laudable goal of spreading out homeless shelters across all eight wards of DC. It's not best for homeless residents to all be concentrated in one small area, and puts the burden entirely on one neighborhood.

Most people expected people in some wealthy neighborhoods to fight the idea of any homeless people coming to their communities. But the flaws in how the Bowser administration executed on this plan, with seemingly too-high payments to property owners, some of whom were campaign donors, overshadowed any such debate.

Recently, the DC Council revised the plan to place all shelters on public property or land the District could acquire. In Ward 3, west of Rock Creek Park, the new site is the parking lot of the police station on Idaho Avenue. And now that the legitimate problems with the plan are past, some are indeed attacking the very idea that upper Northwest has to play any part in solving the need for homeless housing.

Many of the usual arguments against any project have come out in full force: the zoning doesn't match; our schools can't afford it; what about neighborhood security; this will add to traffic and harm my property values.

Misconceptions abound

The anonymous flyer says, "We fundamentally oppose the Mayor's plan of equal distribution of homeless population—to build a shelter in each ward regardless of land availability and economic soundness." (The land seems to be quite available, actually, and economically, DC has to spend nothing to buy a parking lot it already owns.)

The letter, and people at the meeting, alleged that a shelter would harm property values. DC Council Chairman Phil Mendelson disputed that:

"There are plenty [of] empty public buildings in the city which can be renovated and used as shelters," the letter also says. First off, not really; second, this really is pretty much empty public land. What they mean is, "there are plenty of public buildings in someone else's neighborhood."

Talking about how the statements are wrong on their face is beside the point. The statements are morally wrong. Many people of DC's fancier neighborhoods, even ones who identify as Democrats ("liberal in the streets, NIMBY in the sheets") believe all of the city's need for housing, whether for homeless residents, the working poor, young college grads, or anyone else, should be solved somewhere else where "there's plenty of empty land."

Never mind that all of those other neighborhoods "over there" have people in them too, people who might be okay with some shelters or halfway housing or other social services but understandably don't want it all. Why should one part of the city get an opt out just because it's the richest part?

Not all residents of the area are hostile to the less fortunate:

Yes, to whoever said that, thank you.


DC's homeless shelter plan just got a makeover

In February, Mayor Bowser put forth a plan to replace DC General with seven smaller family shelters around the District. The DC Council just made some key changes: all of the sites will now be city-owned rather than leased, and a few will be in different locations than first planned.

Photo by Jeffrey on Flickr.

After Mayor Bowser released her plan, many raised concerns about its expensive leasing agreements with private developers and the suitability of some of the proposed sites. Yesterday, the DC Council unanimously approved a revised plan that targets those concerns. The changes are expected to save DC $165 million. Here they are:

The shelter locations in Wards 3, 5, and 6 will change

Three sites, in Wards 3, 5, and 6, will relocate to city-owned land.

Many criticized the original sites: the Ward 5 location, for example, was too close to a bus depot with bad air quality as well as a strip club, and the Ward 6 location was too close to a party venue.

All three locations would have required zoning variances or exceptions to become shelter sites, but that isn't the case with the new sites.

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen both expressed support for the new sites. Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, who previously opposed the shelter plan, now supports a shelter at either of the two proposed sites for Ward 5. Councilmember Yvette Alexander, however, said she is worried that the changes to the locations will delay the closing of DC General.

The District plans to purchase land for sites in Wards 1 and 4

DC will work with property owners to purchase two of the proposed sites, in Wards 1 and 4. If that doesn't work, DC will acquire the properties through eminent domain.

To fund the purchases, the new plan is to use capital funding originally set aside for the renovation of Ward 4's Coolidge Senior High School. Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd said using the school renovation funds places an unfair burden on Ward 4 residents. But Councilmember David Grosso, who is also the Education Committee chair, assured him that the school renovations would still happen on schedule; since the renovations are still in the planning stage, the school wouldn't have been able to use the funding this year anyway.

Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau added an amendment to the new plan that ensures the property owners of the Ward 1 site pay any back taxes they may owe to DC before the District purchases the property.

Mayor Bowser and Phil Mendelson aren't on the same page

Ward 8 Councilmember LaRuby May is worried that the new plan could overburden Ward 8 with more shelter units than other wards. She proposed an amendment that clarified the maximum number of units allowed at each site, but it failed after Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said he felt the issue could be worked out among the council before the next vote without an amendment.

While many councilmembers praised Mayor Bowser for her initiative and courage on the original shelter plan, Council Chairman Mendelson accused the mayor's office of "obfuscation and misinformation" and a lack of collaboration with the council during this process. Later in the day, Mayor Bowser made it clear that her office and the council are still very far apart on the plan.

What happens next?

"We should all be getting ready to go to happy hour, because we got it done!," said Councilmember Vincent Orange. Not so fast, though. There are still a few more steps before this bill becomes a law.

The DC Council will hold another reading of the bill on May 31. If the council approves the bill then, it goes to the mayor for approval. If she vetoes it, nine councilmembers must support the bill for it to become law. It's possible that a few of the councilmembers with misgivings, many of whom are facing tough reelections, could be swayed by lobbying by Mayor Bowser or her allies to vote against the bill.


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?

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