It’s a bitterly cold evening in Washington, D.C., meaning hundreds of the city’s homeless are packing into designated warming shelters across town — and many others are hunkering down outside, hoping their heavy coats will protect them from the imminent threat of hypothermia. Meanwhile, in the District’s newly-gentrified U Street Neighborhood, neighbors shed scarves and coats in a toasty YMCA meeting room to discuss the city’s controversial new plan to build permanent homeless shelters in each of the eight D.C. wards.
“These aren’t criminals. These are family members who need a temporary, safe, and dignified place to stay,” said Polly Donaldson, director of the Department of Housing and Community Development, who lead the Ward 1 meeting. “We want to place these shelters in residential areas where they can become part of the community.”
“Hissssss,” a few older members of the audience replied. Others turned to glare at them. Donaldson was only 10 minutes into the meeting, and the air was already heavy with tension.
With a history wrought with mysterious deaths, criminal health violations, and general negligence, the District’s homeless shelter system is in dire need of a reboot. A proposal to shutter the one massive crumbling family shelter in D.C. by 2018 and open up eight new, smaller shelters in accessible areas of each diverse ward could also change the way residents interact with and better understand those in dire need of housing. No longer would the homeless be shunned to a corner of the city, they’d become family friends, kids’ playmates, and familiar neighborhood faces.
City officials, planning experts, and a surprising number of city residents agree that Mayor Muriel Bowser’s long-awaited homeless plan could be the fix everyone’s been waiting for.
But not everyone’s as hopeful.
Worried that this new addition would affect homeowners’ property values, bring crime to the neighborhood, and place an “unfair burden” on its neighbors, many residents were visibly outraged at the Thursday meeting. Despite her explanation that the 29-unit apartment-style shelter would have 24-hour security, require little additional parking, and cater to nonthreatening, quiet families with children (qualities than none of the neighboring bars or clubs can offer), opponents nonetheless shouted at Donaldson to “shut up!” when she answered the audience’s questions to their distaste, sighing loudly in disapproval.
“The folks who live right near [the proposed location] are the ones who are going to be bearing the consequences moving forward for decades,” one man said. “I want to know your thinking behind the site decision.”
A few other residents echoed this request for transparency. “I’m a lawyer. So I know something about government,” declared a man when he got to the mic. “You should know people are going to FOIA this site choice as soon as it’s released.”
But in a neighborhood already crowded with new apartment buildings and upscale stores, Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau said, “there isn’t a lot of land left,” especially one within the city’s price range.
Others asked why they weren’t given a chance to comment on the project before it met the council. Mayor Bowser, who visited each ward’s Thursday night meeting and arrived halfway into Ward 1’s question period, said that if her staff had asked every person in the District whether they wanted a shelter in their neighborhood, no one would have agreed to it.
“I don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘hey, I don’t think Ward 1 should be a part of the homeless solution,’” Bowser said. “I have the obligation to provide shelter to 1,000 people. You don’t want us to have that obligation? Then something has to change in the law.”
Bowser’s work to craft a holistic homeless plan echoes the efforts of multiple other cities across the U.S. — many of which have declared a state of emergency in the past year over their steadily growing homeless populations. In October, the entire state of Hawaii called for emergency action to aid the state’s homeless. The serious lack of affordable housing in the country pushed President Obama to include $11 billion in this year’s budget to fund to solve homelessness over the next decade. He released the budget a day after Bowser’s announcement.
This sweeping makeover to D.C.’s shelter system is anything but reactionary. Bowser’s 2014 campaign focused on closing the current family shelter, D.C. General, a unsafe, poorly maintained old hospital filled with hundreds of homeless — including 600 children — and introducing a smart solution. While many disagree on how to mend the District’s homelessness crisis, most residents concur that D.C. General is in appalling condition and needs to close.
A meeting attendee made sure his fellow neighbors remembered, taking the mic and addressing the audience: “Many of you say you had no vote, that no one added for your input. But you did vote on this. You voted when you elected Mayor Bowser and Councilmember Nadeau.”
Regardless, some seemed skeptical of the mayor’s understanding of the project she’s prioritized since her 2014 campaign for mayor. Others didn’t hide their blatant dislike of homeless people. One man, who owns a house on the street where the Ward 1 shelter will be built, said that there’s already “marauders” from the other city-run low-income housing down his street. “They troll on both sides. I watch this all day long. This is already not a completely a safe place.”
“Do you want a neighborhood of all one income? Is that what you’re asking for?” Bowser responded.
Many younger residents with families and experience working with the District’s homeless applauded the mayor’s decision, and expressed their disappointment in their neighbor’s NIMBY-esque upset.
“One thing I like about my community is we’re welcoming. We’re inclusive,” said one man.
“I want to remind people there are some things more valuable than property values,” said another. “Here we have an opportunity to end homelessness in the District. Please remember we are talking about people, not things.”
One mother of two came to represent other neighborhood parents who couldn’t make it, stressing their approval of the plan. “We welcome these families as our neighbors,” she said
A pastor from a local Methodist church ended the evening, asking for community support the project, calling it a “truly a moral issue.” He was joined at the meeting by a pastor at another church right across the street from the proposed site, who also welcomed the development.
“Our job is to take care of our neighbors. It’s as simple as that,” he said.