Last month, they showed up outside her house. But tomorrow, advocates for the homeless will go to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office at the John A. Wilson Building to demand that her administration pause demolition work on the campus of the largest family homeless shelter in the District. Dozens of families are still living at the former D.C. General hospital.
Led by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless and other community organizations like Bread for the City, the advocates say Bowser’s administration is needlessly putting D.C. General families at risk by preparing to tear down old buildings near the shelter. They say the work could expose the families to hazardous substances and harm their mental health.
As of Aug. 21, fewer than 100 families were left at D.C. General, down from more than 250 at peak levels in recent years. Of those 99 families, only 54 had what officials call a “clear exit path” from the shelter—like a scheduled lease-up—per data the city shared with lawmakers.
Bowser has promised to close the long-dilapidated shelter and stop warehousing homeless families there this fall. Human-services officials ceased placing new families at D.C. General in May and have begun moving the remaining families to other accommodations, including private apartments that are subsidized by rental vouchers as well as apartment-style shelter.
But the advocates and a majority of the D.C. Council have voiced concerns about the pace of the demolition work on the campus. In early August, it was publicly disclosed that high lead levels were present in the soil around the vacant Building 9 on the site, which led the administration to halt exterior demolition on that building. Officials say the site is now safe after remediation work, and work on Building 9 and another building is set to get underway.
“Regardless of whether the families are exposed to contaminants that adversely impact their physical health, there is an even greater likelihood of an adverse impact to the mental health of families from the noise and disruption of this project,” seven lawmakers wrote to Bowser on Aug. 9. “In addition to many stressors that are associated with homelessness, many children from homeless families have experienced traumatic incidences. For these families, particularly children, a calm and stable environment is essential.”
Since July, the advocates have been petitioning Bowser to stop the deconstruction activity near D.C. General, and they staged a protest at her Colonial Village home at the end of that month. The Legal Clinic says that 47 organizations and over 1,100 people have signed the petition. The protest poised to occur at the mayor’s office on Friday is scheduled for noon.
“The role of a Mayor is to represent the interests of the public,” says Aja Taylor, advocacy director at Bread for the City, in a statement. “[W]hy she has not made a public statement committing to waiting until all of the families are moved is beyond understanding. There are 250 children at DC General whose health is at stake here.”
Curbed DC has reached out to Bowser’s office for comment on the planned demonstration and will update this post should they respond. Her top aides have said she is committed to a 2018 closure for D.C. General because the shelter is “unsafe, unsanitary and undignified.”
D.C. General launched as a shelter in 2001, when it replaced the former D.C. Village shelter.