WASHINGTON – Mayor Muriel Bowser announced Tuesday a plan to close the troubled D.C. General Family Shelter by 2018 by moving existing residents to smaller shelters with more services all over the city.
The D.C. Council voted on Nov. 3 to close down the infamous shelter, which is located in Washington’s Southeast section and currently can house approximately 250 families.
The plan outlines the locations of the new facilities with a detailed look into the different services and architecture of each building. Each of the eight wards in the District will have a shelter.
Laura Zeilinger, director of the D.C. Department of Human Services, told the council that the goal is to have small, dignified shelters enriched with services such as social workers and housing navigators on site, coordinated case work, and around-the-clock staffing and security. Building aesthetics were also taken into account: the shelters will be attractive facilities that blend with the neighborhood, she said.
“On any given night, more than 7,000 individuals, including families with children, are experiencing homelessness, and many more people in our community are just a paycheck away from being out on the street,” Zeilinger said. “We need to have a safety net system that supports families when they are falling on hard times.”
D.C. General, a former hospital, has been under public scrutiny since March 2014, when 8-year-old Relisha Rudd disappeared with a janitor. She has been missing ever since.
A Washington Post investigation later that year revealed the deplorable conditions that families had to face while living in the shelter. D.C. General was, and is, plagued with sexual assaults and disease, but city officials have said it cannot be closed down until the system of smaller shelters is established.
Bowser and the council have been committed to closing down the shelter for some time now and will hold community meetings in each ward Thursday to receive feedback from the neighborhoods’ residents about the new shelters.
D.C. General costs $17 million annually to keep up and the cost of maintaining the smaller shelters is calculated at $22 million per year, according to Zeilinger.
The mayor’s plan was met with general support from council members who praised the plan’s commitment to ending homelessness as a city-wide effort.
“I commend you for equally distributing the shelters throughout the city,” said Council member Yvette Alexander, D-Ward 7. “I think that everyone needs to play their part to end homelessness in the city.”
“I know that when this actually does come on site that the community wants to find ways, even in advance, to embrace this temporary facility because they feel the sense of obligation and they also want to be of help,” said Council member Mary Cheh, D-Ward 3.
Council member David Grosso, I-At Large, and chairman for the Committee on Education asked where the children of the families experiencing homelessness were going to continue their schooling.
“Children have a right to remain in their own school,” Zeilinger responded, adding that parents also had the right to choose a new school closer to the shelter or ask for transportation services for their children.
“We have been very intentional also about making sure that the programs are close to public transportation,” said Zeilinger.
Zeilinger said that the program would work with the families to determine the right shelter location for them. The placement will depend on shelter capacity and family size, but also will take into consideration the location of the children’s schools and parents’ jobs.
Council member Kenyan McDuffie, D-Ward 5, expressed concern over the location of the shelter in Ward 5, situated in the northeast quadrant of the city, stating that there is already a significant concentration of homeless services in the neighborhood.
“If we ultimately determine that this has to be the location for whatever reason, that there is an effort to eliminate or remove some if the existing services that are being provided,” McDuffie said.
“I would like to see this work,” said Council member Jack Evans, D-Ward 2, who was first elected in 1991. “After all these years of things not working, I want to see this work.”