Crowded D.C. homeless shelter to be replaced with new housing citywide

WASHINGTON — Buildings spread throughout D.C. will provide short-term housing for homeless families and are intended to replace the aging and crowded D.C. General, once a hospital that now serves as the District’s largest shelter for families.

Mayor Muriel Bowser announced her administration’s plan to replace the shelter Tuesday morning to the District Council. A mix of District-owned and private properties will be used. Some of the locations will require renovations and others will be built from scratch. The plan calls for providing one short-term housing facility in seven of the city’s eight wards. A women’s emergency shelter in Ward 2 will replace two existing facilities.

Those who work with the homeless say spreading the facilities throughout the city is a major change and will give families who’ve exhausted all other options easier access to the District’s safety net.

But the plan will take at least three years before all of the new housing units come online and the last families could  leave D.C. General. Still, Amber Harding, a lawyer who works with homeless clients, is pleased to see the District taking action to close the shelter.

“They are moving forward quickly,” said Harding, with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “It’s not just a goal.”

Bowser described the proposed family housing as dignified, modern and safe. Each will provide career, financial and housing counseling services to help the families staying there to get back on their feet plus offer space for children to play and do homework — something lacking at D.C. General. The proposed sites sit near bus or Metro lines.

City officials say agreements will be struck with each of the neighborhoods selected for the new units to address community concerns like noise, traffic and parking.

But few details were shared about the layouts of those units and whether each room would have its own private bathroom.

Sharing bathroom facilities has been a concern for families staying at D.C. General. They don’t want their children mingling with unfamiliar adults in communal bathrooms and families can wait for hours for a turn using the few family-style bathrooms with doors that lock. Parents worry about leaving their children alone if they need to visit the bathroom in the middle of the night, said Harding.

The smaller planned buildings will alleviate some of those concerns, but Harding and others are hoping that the families won’t have to share bathrooms.

A lack of privacy, an unsanitary setting and safety problems have also plagued families with no other option but to stay in the converted hospital.

The old city hospital was never intended to serve as the District’s main family shelter. Initially opened to temporarily house the homeless during a bout of cold weather, its population has grown during the last seven years even as the building wears out, said Laura Zeilinger, director of the Department of Human Services.

Heating and cooling equipment problems and broken elevators that leave the disabled stranded have added to the challenges for the shelter’s occupants.

The big, inefficient and aging building costs the District about $17 million a year to operate. The new eight buildings are expected to cost an extra $5 million annually. About $40 million is available in the current budget for construction.

“D.C. General is too big, it’s deteriorating and it’s no place to support families,” Bowser told the Council.

Bowser and her predecessor Vincent Gray both pledged to close D.C. General.

The disappearance and presumed death of Relisha Rudd shone a bright light on the haggard conditions at the shelter. The 8-year-old girl disappeared with a janitor who worked there and she has never been found.

District investigations unleashed in the wake of her disappearance led to calls to for a new approach to housing the city’s growing numbers of homeless residents.

Since 2010, homelessness among families has jumped 40 percent. On any night, some 7,000 people Districtwide experience homelessness, Zeilinger said.

And Monday night, 260 families stayed at D.C. General. That included 1,000 people, she said.

After the last new building opens in late 2018, she hopes D.C. General will be demolished.

The Council would have to approve the plan before any of the renovations or building can begin.

Here are the proposed sites:

  • 2105-2107 10th Street, NW (Ward 1) — will house up to 30 families
  • 810 5th Street NW (Ward 2) — will house up to 213 women
  • 2619 Wisconsin Ave., NW (Ward 3) — will house up to 38 families
  • 5505 Fifth Street, NW (Ward 4) — will house up to 49 families
  • 2266 25th Place, NE (Ward 5) — will house up to 50 families
  • 700 Delaware Ave., SW (Ward 6) — will house up to 50 families
  • 5004 D Street, SE (Ward 7) — will house up to 35 families
  • 6th and Chesapeake Street, SE (Ward 8) — will house up to 50 families

WTOP’s Mark Lewis contributed to this report.

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