DC readies shift to smaller homeless shelters amid DC General’s closing

WASHINGTON — D.C. leaders say they are no longer placing homeless families at D.C. General ahead of its September closure. They’re looking ahead to designing neighborhood shelters and to continuing a downward trend of homelessness by securing permanent housing for families.

D.C. General is not accepting any new residents. Now, 196 families live there, according to the Department of Human Services. The one-time hospital-turned-shelter has long been considered the eyesore of D.C. social services.

“It’s a big deal for us. We see it as historic,” said Grier Gillis, director of D.C.’s general services. Her department oversees shelter construction, which has broken ground on shelters in six wards.

“It never intended to be served as a homeless shelter. We spend upwards of $2 million just maintaining it, dealing with the emergencies. [It’s] just repairs, equipment and what have you in the building. It’s time for us to move on and provide something more dignified for the families,” Gillis said in a broadcast-exclusive interview with WTOP.

Pointing to spiking lines on a flow chart, the director of D.C. Human Services, Laura Zeilinger, said that when the city threw out the model of only sheltering its homeless in the winter, both those lines and the population in need dropped.

“The number of families experiencing homelessness are going down. It’s not because housing got more affordable. It’s because we’re doing a better job helping families when they are beginning to experience a housing crisis,” Zeilinger said.

While Gillis said short-term family housing shelters in Wards 4, 7 and 8 are on track to be completed by October, D.C. General is set to close in September. There is a question for some families about whether they’ll find themselves in a New York Avenue motel room in the interim.

But Zeilinger said that number is far smaller than it used to be. In June 2016, DHS numbers showed 606 families living in a motel. The following year, that number fell to 477, and now there are 330 families in motel rooms.

“If we don’t have space in our year-round capacity, we use motels as overflow. We will continue to do that to bridge until we have all the capacity that we need,” Zeilinger said.

The city broke ground on shelters in Wards 3, 5 and 6 and are expecting to open them on time next year. The shelter in Ward 1 is expected to open in January 2020. In designing the short-term family shelters, which have different capacities in each ward, project managers are coupling the families with needed services.

“If you can bring a family and you have a 10-year-old kid who walks into this building and can say, ‘I’d can be proud to live here … and bring a friend to this building,’ then we’ve met our goals,” said Brian Butler, project manager with the Department of General Services.

In the shelters, families will get private rooms with microwaves and refrigerators, as well as community space to recreate. There are up to 10 families on a floor and at least one family bathroom for every two families. Some have an ensuite bathroom, Zeilinger said.

In contrast, families coming from D.C. General are used to having more than 50 rooms on a floor.

“So it’s still a temporary setting, but we believe it’s going to be beautiful. It will be offered in a dignified and supported and welcoming way where people can feel safe and supported,” Zeilinger said.

See the short-term family housing shelter designs here.

Along with neighborhood shelters, the city is offering willing landlords a subsidized year of rent to welcome families in transition. Some families can find that the stability of having their own home makes finding permanence in the rest of their lives easier, Zeilinger said.

“Oftentimes what families really need becomes apparent once they are in housing. With the stability of housing under them, people exceed even their own expectations,” she said.

All families residing in a D.C. shelter have a case manager with whom they develop a housing stabilization plan. That manager maintains overall responsibility for the family’s welfare, said DHS spokeswoman Dora Taylor-Lowe.

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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