Worried about the new 801 East Shelter

Photo of the new 801 East Shelter being constructed.

Photo by Wendell Williams

The other day, a great friend of the homeless contacted me about donating some food from her fraternal organization. Over the years they have always called when there was a big event to ask if I could distribute some of the wonderful food left over. One time they called after a seafood feast and asked if I could find a home for hundreds of pounds of shrimp. As I sometimes do, I said yes before I really had time to think it through. 

I arrived at the site of the Saturday afternoon function in Old Town, Alexandria and lo and behold they had so much seafood leftovers there was no way to get it all in my car’s back seat and trunk. Seeing this, the members sprung into action, pulling their cars up and loading them to the brim. I made a call to my former colleagues at 801 East, the city’s largest men’s shelter, and asked if this was a gift they’d accept and could use, and the answer was yes. 

So we left in a caravan of 4 or 5 cars headed into Southeast D.C., a place I know none of my helpers were familiar with. But I watched them smile after seeing how much the staff and residents appreciated their gift. These were people who wouldn’t normally have the chance to mix with the homeless, even though they’d been sending donations of food for years, or see the results — smiles on the faces of guys having a seafood bash at a shelter. 

Soon another Random Act of Kindness brought me to the gates of the former St. Elizabeth’s Hospital again. This time, I was given large bags of baked potatoes and salad mix and asked if I could take them to shelter. As usual, I said yes and called a staff member on duty and said I was coming. When I got there, the gate I had used for years to enter 801 was closed, and I wondered what happened. Just then, I saw a man walking towards the gate that was now only open for pedestrians but not vehicles. I inquired and he said the next gate down is now the entrance to 801.

I drove down and right in, not paying attention to the new signage. After a few turns, I took a winding detour until the road looked familiar. I had called ahead and was met by a longtime staff member who took the donations after we talked about the history of efforts to improve the facilities. Our conversation made me think about my connections to that building over the years: From desperate homeless client, to intern, and then finally to a clinical staff member after earning certification as a substance abuse recovery specialist. 

Photo of a sign advertising the new 801 East Shelter.
A sign advertising the 801 East redevelopment project. Photo by Wendell Williams

Looking back, I’ve been associated with this shelter for well over 30 years in one form or another. One of the constants over those years was a great supporter of the homeless I met at the old Franklin shelter downtown, a humble man who prefers to remain anonymous.

He later became my counselor, trainer, mentor and finally my colleague at the 801 East TRP recovery program. He’s been in that old 801 building helping the helpless help themselves for decades. And he’s still there today, even in his declining health, attempting to help reshape the lives of homeless people seeking treatment for their addictions.

After so many years, a big change is coming to make his job easier: The city is building a new 801 East shelter to replace the old, rat-infested one I stayed in so long ago. All of us who care deeply about the issues that affect the homeless really hope the building will be completed close to the projected opening date on the sign at the MLK Avenue gate, September 2021. But I can’t see how making that date is possible, based just on talking to people I know there and the progress I’ve seen at the site. 

If it were any other kind of construction project — an office building, or a sports stadium, or a hospital — delays wouldn’t be tolerated. I’m worried that because it’s just homeless people, nobody but us will notice. It would be easier if the city would just tell us if the date has to be pushed back, rather than pretending everything is on schedule which it obviously isn’t.

I  think It’s gonna take an old testament miracle to make that date. When I visited the construction site last week, several shelter residents and workers said they had heard it wouldn’t be ready until December or January. But after all these years, I am going to keep hope alive. 

Wendell Williams is a vendor with Street Sense Media. 

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