Washington, D.C., faces the challenge of accommodating 700 displaced families during the hypothermia season from Nov. 1 to April 1, when below-freezing temperatures trigger the right-to-shelter law in D.C. that mandates housing for all homeless people.
The surge in homeless families seeking shelter has prompted Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration to be proactive in its approach, renting out motel rooms to 400 families to facilitate potentially record-breaking numbers before the annual cold front hits the District. According to the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, there are around 7,784 homeless individuals in D.C. on a given night. Bowser allocated a $23 million budget to combat homelessness this year.
The D.C. Council established guidelines for the construction of six dormitory-style facilities to replace the dilapidated D.C. General Hospital shelter, which Bowser vowed to shutter Nov. 3. The shelter, located in southeast D.C., is overcrowded with upward of 250 families and has been plagued with complaints of poor sanitary conditions and internal dysfunction since its conversion from a hospital in 2010.
The six replacement shelters will house no more than 50 families each, and will provide rehabilitative services including job placement and work readiness training. The shelters aim to slash the length of time homeless families need to find stable housing to 60 to 90 days, down from the nine- to 12-month average stay of families in the D.C. General Hospital.
Dora Taylor, the public information officer for the mayoral department of human services, said the community-based nature of the new shelters will hopefully alleviate the difficulties of searching for housing.
“The concept behind smaller community-based shelters is that people can stay within their own communities and hopefully return to stable housing as soon as possible but also have access to those supports in their own communities,” Taylor said. “The way the current system runs with D.C.
General, when you become displaced or become homeless you generally have to leave your community to receive shelter service and generally you have to pull your children out of their school in a process that’s just one big nightmare.”
In its guidelines, the council rejected Councilmember Mary Cheh’s (D-Ward 3) amendment requiring private bathrooms for each housing unit. In a nine to four vote, it opted instead for Chairman Phil Mendelson’s (D-At Large) compromise, which mandates that a minimum of 10 percent of units have private bathrooms. Proponents maintain the decision is more cost-effective and will save approximately $1 million in construction costs and $225,000 per year in a 20-year lease.
However, advocates for the homeless condemn the lack of private bathrooms laid out in the construction guidelines. Critics of the plan argue private bathrooms are essential to the safety and dignity of homeless families, citing uncomfortable or dangerous situations in communal restrooms. These include the contraction of infections from other inhabitants and decisions of whether to send young boys to the men’s bathrooms unaccompanied or into the women’s ones with their mothers.
Nassim Moshiree, a staff attorney for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said the council’s cost concerns do not justify the deprivation of safety for children and the disabled who will live in the shelters.
“There are things that, even if they cost more, are such a basic level of dignity that if they cost more, you find the money,” Moshiree said. “You don’t just take away that very basic need that people have, and that’s how we see private bathrooms.”
Moshiree said that, ultimately, it is the responsibility of members of the D.C. Council, as well as advocacy groups and private citizens, to be vigilant about the conditions of the homeless under the mayor’s plan.
“Even the councilmembers who passed the law with 10 percent private bathrooms said this is going to be a bare minimum requirement and that they would want to see the mayor go above what is required in the law,” Moshiree said. “We are hoping that the mayor will take that opportunity and maximize the number of private bathrooms that they actually build in the replacement shelters and that we all will keep an eye out on and keep advocating for the rights of people who are all too often forgotten by the community.”
However, Taylor maintained that the council’s decision was realistic in terms of budgetary constraints and does not compromise the dignity of families residing in the shelter.
“Each shelter is going to be smaller, and it’ll be easier for families to share spaces if there are not as many families demanding those spaces,” Taylor said. ”I think in the end people will just have to see the end result, but the plan for these shelters is that they’re modernized, they are state-of-the-art, they are extremely dignified, and I would even go so far as to say that they’re beautiful.”
In addition to closing down the D.C. General Hospital shelter, Mayor Bowser vowed to eradicate veteran homelessness by the end of this year, family homelessness by 2017 and all chronic homelessness by 2020.
Mandy Brouillard (NHS ’18), who serves as a Friday Foods coordinator for Hoya/Homeless Outreach Programs and Education, said the investment in smaller shelters would mitigate some of the problems she witnesses during weekly conversations with the homeless as she delivers them sandwiches for the Friday Foods program.
“I think that recognizing flaws in the shelter system is an important step to providing more efficient housing,” Brouillard said. “In the longterm, investing in smaller shelters and permanent housing will pay off. … Providing housing up front for those who want it both protects their dignity and has been shown to save money.”