(Updated at 12:45 p.m.) The Arlington County Board on Saturday voted to approve a controversial use permit for the county’s new year-round Homeless Services Center in Courthouse.
The permit will allow the county and the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network to run a year-round homeless shelter in the office building at 2020 14th Street N., which the county recently purchased. The building is located across the street from Arlington County Police headquarters and two blocks from the existing Emergency Winter Shelter, which closes from April 1 to Oct. 31.
Citing concerns primarily about crime, residents of the Woodbury Heights Condominium continued to voice opposition to the shelter, which will be located adjacent to their building. With approval of the use permit looking inevitable, condo residents unsuccessfully lobbied for a 24/7 security guard, and a prohibition on housing homeless individuals with a history of violent crime or sex offenses.
The Board agreed to a condition calling for a security guard from 4:00 p.m. to midnight, and agreed to some design changes intended to address neighbor concerns. That wasn’t enough for condo residents.
“Why in heaven’s name would you cheap out… and cut way back on the security,” said Ken Robinson, president of the Woodbury Heights Condominium Association, in his remarks to the Board. “They have made some changes here that are very positive, but they have to do more to safeguard the community.”
“I will tell you, if something occurs and people come back and say ‘how did this happen’… and it comes out that the County Board decided to squeeze pennies and not have adequate security, you’re going to have a lot of negative publicity about Arlington County and its social policies,” Robinson added.
Along with speakers who opposed the homeless shelter, the Board also heard from A-SPAN and its supporters, including volunteers, formerly homeless clients of A-SPAN, faith leaders and state Sen. (and former County Board member) Barbara Favola.
“There’s no reason to delay this use permit,” Favola said. She called the proposed year-round shelter a “national model” that is the “economically smart thing to do” since, she said, it will actually save money compared to the societal cost of dealing with and caring for homeless individuals who sleep on the streets.
In a report to the Board, county staff argued that the new shelter is not the dire safety concern that residents make it out to be. The current Emergency Winter Shelter, staff says, has not resulted in any significant safety incidents for residents.
“The EWS does not have security cameras or a security guard,” staff wrote. “The EWS has operated one and a half blocks away from the proposed location for the Homeless Services Center for over 20 years with no significant problems for the surrounding area.”
“The proposed Homeless Services Center, operating as a dormitory use, will have less of an impact on the surrounding community than the current EWS because the HSC will be open 24/7 and will have the capacity to accommodate people waiting for a bed inside the facility rather than having them wait outside for the building,” staff wrote.
The new Homeless Services Center will be operated by A-SPAN and will consist of 50 permanent beds, 25 additional beds during the winter, and five medical beds. The center will also feature a dining area, administrative offices, program space and “comprehensive services aimed at getting clients into permanent housing.”
County Board members said they have heard and considered input from residents, but still voted unanimously for the use permit.
“Arlington has long needed a permanent, year-round, comprehensive Homeless Services Center,” Board Chairman Walter Tejada said in a statement. “This Center will provide integrated services with the goal of getting every person who comes through the door into permanent housing.”
With its vote, the Board also approved a window screen on the service alley side of the building, to provide privacy to both shelter and Woodbury residents, and a 24/7 community liaison phone number.
Still, the shelter will be open to those with mental problems and criminal histories, worrying many residents.
“The Center’s low barrier-high-expectation model has been proven to work with a population that includes persons who have serious physical or mental issues or face serious barriers to housing,” the county said in a press release. “Services such as case management, mental health and substance abuse treatment, benefit enrollment, employment, and life skills training will be provided by the Department of Human Services and non-profit partners.”
“The County has been working with neighboring residents and the broader community, and will continue to work with them to address concerns about security and other areas as this project moves forward,” Tejada said.
Following a renovation of the building, the new homeless shelter is expected to open in fall 2014. Including the $27.1 million purchase price of the building and costs associated with county offices that will be opening in the floors above the homeless service center, the entire project is expected to cost taxpayers $42 million over five years. The annual operating, maintenance, homeless programming and debt service costs of the building is projected at $2.5 million per year.The total cost of the building purchase, homeless shelter conversion