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D.C.’s biggest family homeless shelter closes as officials prepare to open new ones

D.C. General shuts down emptied of residents and with little fuss

D.C. General
The Washington Post/Getty Images

Without much ado, Mayor Muriel Bowser on Tuesday officially shuttered D.C. General, the former hospital that had served as a homeless shelter since 2001 and had housed more than 260 families a night at peak levels in recent years, making it the city’s largest family shelter.

The closure was a historic and long-awaited moment for the District—one that city leaders, advocates for the homeless, and residents have pushed hard for, particularly after the 2014 disappearance of then-8-year-old Relisha Rudd from the shelter. Rudd was never found and is widely believed to be dead; a janitor at D.C. General allegedly abducted her before killing himself and his wife. Families there have also dealt with safety issues, mold, rats, and pests.

Yet Bowser, who pledged to close the shelter for good as a candidate and as mayor, simply announced the end of D.C. General on Twitter. She and other administration officials visited the site and put a metal chain on the front entrance, making brief remarks to only a handful of media outlets in attendance. There was no press release or advisory about the event, but Bowser published a short video featuring footage of a 2015 speech and the chain going up:

“We all believed that it was too big, too run-down, too isolated to serve families who need emergency shelter,” she said at the closure, according to a separate clip of the event that her office subsequently shared with Curbed. “Now, the last family has moved out of the facility.”

Officials stopped placing families at D.C. General last May, and helped those who were still living there relocate to private apartments or other shelters, including hotel rooms that the District leases as overflow space. One-hundred-and-seventy families left D.C. General from July through October, per data the administration released. Most received rental vouchers, some transferred to other shelters, and nine were kicked out for breaking program rules. A number of the shelter-transfers happened after residents had requested them, officials say.

D.C. General exits from July 1, 2018 through Oct. 30, 2018
D.C. government

Several smaller shelters designed to replace D.C. General are under development across the city, the results of a plan that Bowser and lawmakers hashed out in 2016. The administration opened two of those shelters, in Northwest and Southeast, over the past several weeks, and 20 families are currently staying there. A third shelter, also located in Southeast, is poised to début this month, while the other replacement shelters are to be finished in 2019 and 2020.

District leaders hope to decentralize the shelter system and improve services for homeless families by operating facilities that are more manageable than D.C. General was. Even after lawmakers approved the replacement plan, though, some residents pushed back against it. A fourth shelter, located in Northwest, recently withstood a zoning challenge by neighbors, but a fifth, located in Northeast, faces a similar lawsuit that is pending in the D.C. appeals court.

Although only two of the replacement shelters had opened by time time Bowser closed D.C. General this week, overall family homelessness has dropped roughly 40 percent since 2016, to 924 families counted last January. In January 2017, 1,166 homeless families were counted, and the year before, 1,491 families were counted. The administration credits reforms to the District’s homeless services system—including stronger prevention efforts—for the declines.

Still, in the months leading up to the shuttering, some advocates for the homeless said the mayor was rushing to empty the shelter, possibly for its redevelopment potential, and thus risking the health and safety of the remaining families. The advocates called on Bowser to delay demolition work on the D.C. General campus until all the families could be relocated. Work on a vacant building on the campus was stopped after lead was found in nearby soil.

Neither advocates nor D.C. councilmembers appear to have received a heads-up about the specific timing of the closure from the administration. A staffer for D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson says his office was not notified in advance about the event, though a staffer for Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, chair of the human services committee, notes that Bowser’s team had recently indicated D.C. General would close by the end of October.

In a statement, Nadeau says the closure is “an important milestone, but there’s still a lot of work to do when it comes to families experiencing homelessness.” “We must push ahead with opening the remaining short-term family shelters, and prioritize affordable housing across the District to ensure homelessness is rare, brief, and non-recurring​,” Nadeau continues.

The administration is also thinking about the future. Laura Zeilinger, the head of the city’s Department of Human Services, says the end of D.C. General is “absolutely monumental,” but adds that families are spending more time in the shelter system than expected under the “Homeward DC” plan to eliminate long-term homelessness. “The metric for us that’s been so stubborn is ‘brief,’” says Zeilinger. The average length of stay for a family in the District’s shelter system is about seven months currently, according to the department.

Officials are aiming for a 90-day average for stays at the new shelters. “We might not get there out of the gate, but that’s the goal,” Zeilinger explains. “Our exits [from the system] are outpacing our entires month over month over month.” More than 450 homeless families reside at hotels today, but that number is lower than what it was around this point last year and is anticipated to decrease even further once all the replacement shelters have opened.

Asked why residents did not see more fanfare for the long-sought closure of D.C. General, Zeilinger says the administration’s emphasis is on being “forward-looking.” A spokeswoman for Bowser’s office declined to comment on the record about why the event was so low-key.

One of the new shelters, located at 5004 D St. SE
D.C. government

Officials plan to demolish the main D.C. General building next year. As for what the site will become, a spokeswoman for Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development Brian Kenner says in a statement that her office will “work with the community to implement” the master plan for Reservation 13, the massive plot of land on which the former shelter stands.

For more than a decade, District leaders have sought to redevelop Reservation 13, which is located along the Anacostia River and near the Stadium–Armory Metro station. The master plan calls for “a beautiful public place that links the existing neighborhood to the waterfront while also meeting District-wide and neighborhood needs for health care, recreation, civic space, and housing.” The Council approved the planning document back in October 2002.

“Given the size of the property,” the spokeswoman says, “this will likely occur in phases, similar to the process currently being followed at St. Elizabeths,” the Southeast campus where D.C. is building a mixed-use development and opened its Entertainment and Sports Arena. “We look forward to engaging with the community and D.C. Council on this process.”