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Advocates ask D.C. mayor to pause closure of city’s biggest homeless shelter for families

Several nonprofits want Mayor Bowser to delay closing D.C. General until all the families living there relocate

D.C. General
The Washington Post/Getty Images

After a legislative effort imploded earlier this month, a coalition of advocacy groups is now asking the mayor’s office to stave off the expected fall closure of the D.C. General homeless shelter. The city is scheduled to start demolition of the vacant Building 9 on D.C. General’s campus in August.

According to the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless (WLCH), “demolition of Building 9 while [homeless] families still live in the nearby shelter increases the risk of dust, rodents, and neuro-toxins impacting the health and safety of the families, perhaps irreparably.” That building is just 250 feet away from the main D.C. General building.

On Monday, WLCH published an online petition demanding that Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration stop the demolition of the shelter campus until the families living there move to other housing accommodations. In effect, this would require the city to relocate more than 150 families by rehousing them in motels used as emergency shelters or providing them with rental vouchers that the families could use for private apartments.

Other advocates who have joined the petition include those at nonprofits Bread for the City, Empower DC, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and Collective Action for Safe Spaces.

At full capacity, D.C. General can shelter more than 250 homeless families, making it D.C.’s largest family homeless shelter. But after Bowser announced in January that she would close the dilapidated shelter for good this fall—before the end of her first term—the D.C. Department of Human Services ceased placing families at D.C. General.

The District is currently building smaller replacement shelters across the city. But as the Washington City Paper first reported last month, construction on two of the shelters is significantly behind schedule.

In a statement, Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services HyeSook Chung says the new shelters will be “dignified” and provide families a better experience than D.C. General does. These shelters will include “services to help families stabilize and exit homelessness quickly with the tools to thrive in homes of their own,” she adds, without addressing potential health hazards for families living at D.C. General.

In addition to advocates, some District lawmakers have expressed concerns with what they see as a rush by the Bowser administration to close D.C. General. Only three of the planned replacement shelters will open this fall, according to the administration.

The concerns led D.C. Councilmember Trayon White, who represents Ward 8 in Southeast, to float emergency legislation a few weeks ago that would have delayed D.C. General’s end until those three replacement shelters open and begin housing families.

But White received pushback from the administration and watered down his bill to require the administration only to provide updates on the status of the shutdown. The D.C. Council then passed the weaker version of the legislation, leaving some advocates dissatisfied.

“The Mayor has given no reason to the public as to why she needs to demolish buildings around the families while they still live on the campus,” the petition reads. “Some have speculated that the urgency to clear the campus may be motivated by development pressures—either for Amazon headquarters or other private development.”

Although the District included the land on which D.C. General sits in its bid for Amazon HQ2, Bowser’s economic development team has denied such allegations. D.C. is one of 20 finalists for HQ2 and Amazon is anticipated to pick a winner this year.

This post has been updated with comment from Chung.