D.C. General residents don’t share critics’ concerns about new Ward 3 family shelter

Jessica Odom, 28, has lived at the D.C. General family homeless shelter since April and hopes the replacement facilities will provide more services. (Mark Lieberman/The Current/June 2017)

Critics of the family homeless shelter planned for the 2nd District Police Headquarters site in Ward 3 have cited a number of concerns — some about how the site will affect the neighborhood, and others about whether the shelter will prove satisfactory for its residents.

The former concerns are familiar to numerous development projects, generally boiling down to the juxtaposition of a tall building against nearby single-family homes. There were also complaints about a D.C. Council site-selection process that critics said allowed inadequate time for community input.

But neighbors concerns’ for the shelter’s future residents are also numerous, if hypothetical. The shelter’s proximity to the police station at 3320 Idaho Ave. NW raises worries that families will feel like they’re being monitored. The dearth of affordable restaurants in the area could prove alienating to residents without substantial means. And the distance from the nearest Metro station might be inconvenient, especially for parents who need easy access to a job elsewhere in the city.

The proposed family shelter would sit adjacent to the 2nd District Police Headquarters at 3320 Idaho Ave. NW. (Rendering courtesy of D.C. government)

But for parents like 28-year-old D.C. native Jessica Odom — who’s lived in the city’s existing family homeless shelter at D.C. General since April — some of those prospects sound more like opportunities than red flags. Living next to a police station, for instance, would make her feel safer than she does now, she said.

“I would want to live there because people would be a lot less willing to step out of line,” Odom told The Current outside D.C. General on Thursday, eating a cup of noodles and scolding her young son for touching a nearby fence.

Odom described her experience at D.C. General, located at 1900 Massachusetts Ave. SE next to the Stadium-Armory Metrorail station, as one of frequent frustration with some fellow residents and the security guards charged with protecting them. Sometimes people take more food than they’re supposed to or ignore the shelter’s loosely enforced curfew, she said. The environment isn’t conducive to parenting a son or readying herself for finding a new home.

“This is not where somebody wants to be,” Odom said. “A jail is run better.”

Comments from Odom and other D.C. General residents interviewed for this story highlight the challenge facing the city as it prepares to close the dilapidated D.C. General facility and replace it with seven new shelters across the District. The sites are meant to serve as transitional spaces where residents experiencing homelessness can rest before the city finds a more permanent housing option within 60 to 90 days, compared with the average six-month stay for families at D.C. General. But during that transition, families have a variety of specific needs that require significant resources.

D.C. General, a former public hospital, has served as the city’s only family homeless shelter since 2007, with capacity for up to 260 families. During her mayoral campaign in 2014, Mayor Muriel Bowser vowed to close D.C. General and make homelessness in the city “rare, brief and non-recurring.”

Each of the seven new shelter sites will have room for up to 50 families. One in five units will have private bathrooms, and one in four will offer trundles and Pack ’n Play cribs for infants. Common areas will include an outdoor children’s playground with basketball court; a computer lab; and a dining room with a warming oven and pantry. Each floor will offer a study lounge and rooms for laundry, trash and storage.

Before proposing her administration’s shelter plan early last year, Mayor Muriel Bowser consulted a focus group of residents experiencing homelessness and absorbed recommendations from her Interagency Council on Homelessness.

Under the city’s target timelines, most of D.C. General’s current residents will have been moved to more permanent housing by the time the new shelters open. But the residents there today offer a window into priorities for the neighborhood shelters.

For Odom, access to public transportation is key, as is having space for adults at the shelter to relax and enjoy recreation. Right now, she often doesn’t hear about community events planned by D.C. General employees except through word-of-mouth an hour or two before they happen.

The D.C. General family homeless shelter, located at 1900 Massachusetts Ave. SE, is slated for closure. (Brian Kapur/The Current/June 2017)

Kim Bonham, who has lived at D.C. General with her three children since November 2014, hopes the city’s new shelter effort emphasizes initiatives that prepare residents for GEDs and job interviews. On a walk from the shelter to the nearby Harris Teeter on Friday, Bonham said she had expected at the beginning of her stay that she would be leaving D.C. General within a year. Her teenage son has developed asthma in recent years, and she thinks it’s a result of the facility’s poor sanitation.

“I’m so ready to go,” Bonham said. She worries that the seven new shelters won’t be enough to hold the city’s population of families experiencing homelessness. Federal estimates released last year showed a 30 percent year-to-year increase of family homelessness in D.C, with as many as 4,667 homeless children and parents tallied on a single January day.

Cathy Brooks, a close friend of several D.C. General residents, told The Current outside the facility that it might even be beneficial for residents experiencing homelessness to be exposed to people with different life experiences — like the affluent community surrounding the Ward 3 shelter.

“A lot of people need to be in a mixed culture,” she said. “Some of these people haven’t ever been out of Southeast.”

Despite their numerous upgrades, the new shelters will lack at least one feature currently offered at D.C. General: separate activity rooms for babies, 3- to 7-year-olds, and teenagers, according to Melanie Hatter of the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project. Her organization hosts an evening program for the shelter’s young residents there.

“They’re sort of nice little oases. We make them nice and bright and cheerful and really geared towards the kids,” Hatter said. “The new sites, however, are not going to have that kind of space dedicated. We are really looking at how we can continue to serve this population. I think it is going to be a little challenging.”

The conference rooms planned for the new sites might double as “pop-up playtime” areas, said Hatter. Even beyond children’s activity spaces, it might be difficult to fully understand what the new shelters need to offer until they’re open, she said.

“Most of the families who are there now, they’re just trying to get through today. They’re for the most part hoping they won’t be there and won’t be in the situation of being moved into one of the new shelters,” Hatter said. “Thinking two years ahead, that’s a long time.”

In Ward 3, construction of the new shelter is slated to start this November and wrap up in summer 2019, according to Department of Human Services spokesperson Dora Taylor.

Meanwhile, D.C. General is scheduled to close in phases beginning next year, as the new shelters elsewhere in the city start to open. When residents in D.C. General cycle out, at a certain point they won’t be replaced, Taylor said.

Bonham hadn’t heard the details of the city’s shelter plans.

But she said that residents in her position, without anywhere else to go, aren’t likely to be picky about the surrounding neighborhood in which they’re placed, especially given what they would have experienced at D.C. General.

“It doesn’t matter,” Bonham said. “If that’s where they gotta go, that’s where they’ll want to be.”

Ward 3 D.C. Council member Mary Cheh is among the city officials who are also optimistic about the program’s success — and has been a vocal critic of its detractors.

“I don’t want to be Pollyanna-ish. But I really think that it’s not much different than having a 50-unit apartment building,” Cheh said.