DCist first published this story on May 13.
E arlier this year, one of the only short-term shelters in Ward 2 closed temporarily to repair long-standing plumbing, power, and air system issues in the building, located near Mount Vernon Triangle.
The residents of Patricia Handy Place for Women, the women-only shelter run by a Department of Human Services’ non-profit partner, N Street Village, were moved into a swing space so the city could finally address the building’s myriad problems.
“[The building condition] doesn’t speak to the kind of environment of dignity and reliability that we would be offering our residents,” Schroeder Stribling, the CEO of N Street Village, told DCist last fall regarding the upcoming renovations.
But since March, about 100 men have been living in the space, according to the Department of Human Services, due to the capacity restrictions placed on emergency shelters during the pandemic.
The women living at Patricia Handy moved out in February, as DHS and the Department of General Services prepared to begin what would likely be at least a year-long construction project. Planned repairs included the installation of a new dedicated outside air system and dehumidifiers, an elevator upgrade, window modifications, exhaust and supply ductwork, a power upgrade, and bathroom and shower room renovations, among others.
Meanwhile, as the city shut down the recreation centers it used for hypothermia season and returned their operations to the Department of Parks and Recreation, DHS said they needed a space to house men that could also accommodate for social distancing. The end of the hypothermia season and the ongoing pandemic put the city’s shelter system in a position that required pivoting into different spaces that would still allow for pandemic precautions, according to DHS.
In the interim between women moving out and men moving in, the city conducted repairs to make the building livable for temporary use, according to DHS. The Department of General Services, which partners with DHS to manage city-owned buildings like shelters, did not immediately return DCist’s request for comment on the nature of the repairs, or a timeline for future construction.
“The District is committed to ensuring shelter is available and operates in accordance with recommendations from DC Health and CDC,” said DHS Director Laura Zeilinger. “Low barrier shelters are operating at reduced capacity to allow for appropriate social distancing, and so DHS is temporarily offering shelter at this location until we are able to return to full capacity in our low barrier shelter system.”
Stribling, the CEO of N Street Village, said that the organization now has little connection to the Patricia Handy building since moving into the swing space earlier this year. While the building wasn’t in such a state of disrepair that “it was falling on people’s heads,” she said it had built up an accumulation of problems — and attempting to remedy them with residents in the building could create unhealthy air quality.
When Stribling spoke with DCist last fall, she said that many of the building’s problems pre-dated the shelter’s opening in 2016, and recurred during N Street Village’s four years in the space. Piecemeal repairs often compounded; as soon as one issue was resolved, like an elevator on the fritz, another would arise. If the shelter continued housing residents without a full-scale renovation, Stribling worried the space could become uninhabitable, she said last fall.
According to DHS, there is no active construction on the building while it houses dozens of men. They are connected with case management with the goal of finding permanent housing options, and medical care is provided in coordination with DHS’ partner, Unity Health. (As of Monday, May 10, 2,636 unhoused residents have received a coronavirus vaccine.)
The city acquired the Patricia Handy building in 2016, the same year D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced her plan to shutter D.C. General, a dilapidated family shelter that was plagued by poor conditions and allegations of abuse. Two years prior to Bowser’s announcement, 8-year-old Relisha Rudd disappeared from the shelter, prompting heightened scrutiny of the city’s homeless services. Bowser replaced D.C. General with smaller shelters in each ward, the last of which was completed in February. But in Ward 2, there’s no plan to erect another shelter, leaving Patricia Handy and the nearby Calvary Women’s Services as the only two short-term shelters in the area.
According to the most recent point-in-time count, homelessness in D.C. fell by almost 20% since 2020, but the pandemic has created numerous hurdles for providers, and for the residents that rely on their services. Stribling said many smaller and faith-based providers, which often operate on a volunteer basis, could not provide their normal services during the colder months this year due to coronavirus constraints. (N Street Village, which housed roughly 120 women last fall, opened a second location last year off Bladensburg Road in Ward 5 to accommodate for the need for socially distanced shelter.)
“There was a lot of creativity and quick thinking that had to go into figuring out what spaces could be used for what,” Stribling said. “I don’t know if you’d call it musical chairs, but you know, trying to make sure that we have enough space during this time that everybody’s accommodated, but in the safest possible way so that we can avoid big contagion concerns.”
Stribling said that while the city’s earlier decision to close Patricia Handy for full-scale repairs was much needed, she understands the latest decision to use the building on a temporary basis, if the only other alternative would be no shelter access at all for the men. She’s also anticipating that her organization’s clients will return to Patricia Handy eventually. But she worries that this need for additional space may only increase when coronavirus rent relief measures are cut off, and the eviction moratorium ends.
“If there was an overflowing need for men who would be otherwise unsheltered during the coldest months of this winter, I’d rather see them use that space before construction is going on,” Stribling said. “I’d rather see people in shelter than on the street.”