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Activists protest against D.C. General demolition outside Mayor Bowser’s home

“Lead is toxic, you can stop this!” they chanted

D.C. General
The Washington Post/Getty Images

A group of activists trekked to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Colonial Village home early on Monday morning to stage a mock demolition of the D.C. General family homeless shelter.

Outside the mayor’s home, the activists constructed, then knocked down, a pile of boxes meant to represent the shelter. “Lead is toxic, you can stop this!” they chanted at several points, referring to how homeless advocates worry that the planned demolition of the D.C. General campus could harm the families and children who still live there. “Shame!”

“You say demo, we say hell no!” they continued. Wearing construction vests and helmets, a few of the protesters used fake hammers to smash the boxes, which rested on the sidewalk. They also threw flour in the air to symbolize hazardous dust the real demolition may spread.

Bowser, who did not appear at the demonstration, wants to close D.C. General by the end of the year. Her plan calls for replacing the hulking, long-dilapidated shelter—located near the Anacostia River in Southeast—with new, smaller shelters across the city. Her administration is currently moving out more than 100 families from D.C. General to other housing, whether private apartments subsidized by rental vouchers or motels D.C. uses as emergency shelter.

But the replacement shelters are still under development, and by the administration’s own schedule, only three of them are planned to open by the time D.C. General shutters this fall. Meanwhile, in early August, the District expects to start demolition on a vacant building on the D.C. General campus situated about 250 feet away from the main D.C. General building.

As they noted in a recent open letter to Bowser, homeless advocates say the proximity of this demolition work to the occupied building will increase “the risk of dust, rodents, and neuro-toxins impacting the health and safety of the families” still residing at D.C. General.

The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless (WLCH), which organized the petition, says more than 30 organizations and 550 individuals have signed the letter. WLCH says it plans to deliver a second round of signatures to officials on Monday, after a first round last week.

“I don’t think anyone would want construction like this going on so close to their home,” says D.C. General resident Sharronda Marbley, in a statement. “And this is our home.”

Bowser has defended her deadline for closing D.C. General since announcing it in January. In a statement to Curbed DC following the petition’s release, HyeSook Chung, the deputy mayor for health and human services, said the administration is “well positioned to close an unfortunate and unworthy chapter in our city’s history.”

“We look forward to beginning a new chapter with the transition to short-term family housing facilities where, unlike DC General, these dignified buildings will include age-appropriate spaces for children to live and learn and space for wrap-around services to help families stabilize and exit homelessness quickly with the tools to thrive in homes of their own,” said Chung.

Advocates have also alleged that Bowser is rushing to clear the D.C. General campus for future development, including as a potential site for Amazon’s second headquarters. Her administration has flatly denied these claims, but on Monday, the activists repeated them.

“Amazon can wait, our kids’ lives are at stake!” they chanted. The tech giant is anticipated to choose a winning proposal from a list of 20 finalists this year.

Per an emergency law that the D.C. Council passed in July, the Bowser administration is required to provide regular updates on the demolition of D.C. General. The updates must include the number of families living at the shelter, the number of families who have exited the shelter system, and the number of families who struggle to find private apartments.