Heated emotions about the city’s plan for homeless shelters in all eight wards were on full display Saturday, March 5, at a public meeting to discuss the plans for a family shelter with 38 units in Ward 3.
Hundreds of people packed the cafeteria at Stoddert Elementary in Glover Park, a few blocks from the empty lot on Wisconsin Avenue where Mayor Muriel Bowser has proposed placing a one of the new buildings meant to replace the homeless shelter at DC General.
“We need to have programs that are small, that are in beautiful buildings, that are not like a falling down, re-used building that DC General is,” said Laura Zeilinger, director of the District’s Department of Human Services.
Despite a plea for civility from Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, as Zeilinger and other District officials were explaining the plans for the shelter, they were frequently interrupted by angry audience members.
“You’re taking all the time,” one audience member shouted at Zeilinger. “We heard this at the last meeting,” another interjected.
Most of the attendees who spoke up expressed concern that the new shelters would be poorly managed, citing widespread problems with DC General. Attendees also asked critical questions about how the city picked the site and a company to develop it, conveying skepticism of the $14 million price of building out the site and the $2.1 million in annual rent that taxpayers will shoulder.
“If you have mismanaged DC general and you admit to it, that it’s not managed very well, what guarantee do we have that any one of these homeless shelters spread out will be managed any better?” asked Mina Marefat, who said she was a 30-year resident of Ward 3.
Others also noted that when the deal is complete, developers will be the owners of the shelter buildings, and when the 15-to-20 year leases expire that the city won’t have anything to show for the money spent on this plan.
“The city will have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in rent and will not have any shelters,” Anita Crabtree said. “Is homelessness going to be gone in 20 years?”
Many were critical of the plan philosophically, arguing that solving homelessness will require the city to invest in more permanent affordable housing. Zeilinger said that the city agrees with that, and noted that the shelters are still necessary for families “who need a place to stay tonight.”
“This is part of what it means to fix a broken system,” she said.
Even if disagreeing with the city’s approach, many Ward 3 residents expressed a desire for their neighborhoods—which currently only have 15 permanent beds and 25 seasonal beds to combat hypothermia, the lowest of any area in the city—to do more to support homeless families.
While the angry attendees were often the most vocal, people who stood up to praise the administration’s plan often drew applause, including Sheila Walker, a professor at Johns Hopkins University studying issues related to chronic stress of children in high-poverty families.
“What we know from public health research is that it does take a system-wide level change to think about moving the needle on homelessness so it doesn’t become a multigenerational dead-end,” Walker said.
Still, the anger and frustration expressed by many seemed to represent the angst felt in Ward 3—the city’s wealthiest and whitest section—about welcoming homeless families into the neighborhood. Some attendees criticized the tone taken by their neighbors.
“I would like to be known for living in an activist neighborhood that does things to take care of the people of the city that don’t look just like us,” Laura Pallandre said.
Cheh told residents that she planned to hold Bowser to a promise that there wouldn’t be more than 38 units, and said that the council would scrutinize all of the city’s plans and contracts with developers before signing off on the deal. “If it comes before the council and it still doesn’t have the features that I want, then I will vote against it,” she said.
The council will hold a hearing on the plan on March 17th and likely take votes on the plan in mid-April, according to Cheh.