Our Rapid Re-Housing interns, Roman Rivilis and Sherluna Vien, share their thoughts on the Mayor’s plan to close DC General Family Shelter and open smaller, community-based shelters throughout the District.
DC General Family Shelter Closing
Aaron C. Davis recently published an article in the Washington Post that discussed the Mayor’s plan to close DC General Family Shelter. After reading his post, I started thinking about how the proposal would help homeless families in Washington, DC.
Over 7,000 people are homeless in the nation’s capital.  DC General, an emergency family shelter, temporarily houses over 280 families, including over 600 children that are homeless.  Although the shelter provides housing, it’s notoriously known for a dilapidated structure and a place to not call home. The Washington Legal Clinic received complaints from residents about the lack of heating and hot water, along with the infestation of mice and other insects. It is also the shelter that housed 8-year-old Relisha Rudd when she went missing in 2014. 
DC General Family Shelter is far from being the ideal place to live in for families with children. To better serve families experiencing homelessness, the District plans to lease or build new, smaller shelters in all eight wards across the city. Located in Southeast, the DC General Family Shelter is in the outskirts of downtown, far from jobs and other resources. The goal of building a shelter in each ward is to create a network of resources for homeless families and provide better, more focused services and programming.
Davis discusses the community’s mixed response to this new development. According to his recent post, some residents feel discontentment towards the lack of transparency – feeling out of touch with the process and wanting to be part of the deciding process on the housing relocations of these shelters. However, the Mayor believes adding additional input would cause scrutiny and halt the District’s plans.
Before finding permanent housing, Ms. Sarah Ocran, a THC Rapid Rehousing client, lived at one of the city’s motels that was converted to an emergency shelter. She struggled to get her child from Northeast to a charter school in Southeast on time each day, due to the long distance and transportation delays. By moving the shelters to accessible locations in each ward, families will be able to commute to work or school more easily.
Additionally, the smaller shelters would contribute to the dispersal of low-income residents, instead of its concentration. These new shelters will make mixed-income areas possible. By creating smaller shelters and providing better services, we are providing families with the resources they need to transform their lives.
Davis also points out that residents would feel less anxious if they got to know these families. Instead of making assumptions about their backgrounds and lives, there should be dialogue between the neighbors. A successful THC client and proud father of two boys and one girl, Mr. Lamont Johnson is someone who wanted to get his family out of an emergency shelter and accomplish his goals. At THC, we know these families are people who need temporary housing while getting back on their feet.
With so little available and affordable real estate in DC, Mayor Bowser will need to further strategize and communicate her plan to City Council members and residents as 2018 approaches. Her idea of new shelters is an optimistic plan, believing that these will allow families an easier transition out of homelessness. DC General closing plans has been long overdue. Families should be able to live in a safer and more dignified place, and the Mayor’s plan is a step towards creating a better environment for families with children to stay in.
– Sherluna Vien
Smaller Homes, But Not Cheaper Land
The DC Council voted on November 3rd, 2015 to close the DC General Family Shelter, after years of conversation about the facility. The shelter was slated to close for a variety of reasons, chief among them being the safety of the families in the shelter and the overall condition of the facility. Mayor Muriel Bowser herself even mentions that the building too big, old, and detached from the services necessary to rehabilitate families experiencing homelessness. 
In its stead, the Council is leading a plan to create smaller short-term family housing, disaggregating the giant shelter dynamic into smaller homes sectioned between families. Eight new wards will open all across the District, one shelter in each ward.
There is a lot of good to be found in this plan. The city is replacing an antiquated facility with a mix of DC-owned and leased private property homes that are dispersed throughout the city, covering homelessness in a wide range of different spaces. The smaller facilities are better maintained than the DC General Family Shelter, and consequently provide a safer environment for families living in each ward. The facilities will be safest for the children in need of space to do homework and live in ways that are not possible in DC General Family Shelter.
However, there’s still room for improvement in the city’s affordable housing crisis. Whether it is families securing housing or the city securing short-term housing for families experiencing homelessness, the city’s properties are facing increasingly higher demand while affordability is decreasing. Buying several smaller properties in a slew of different areas will increase the safety of the families over one large, undeveloped facility, but long-term affordability of the city will be barely affected.
What instead would happen is those landowners holding onto the properties in these eight different wards will all be able to collect high rents and perhaps even charge higher rents without using the property in any way; hence, the privately leased short-term rentals could be of greater financial burden the moment a landlord decides it can charge higher rent to those who accept their leases. Lease agreements outside of the wards, between the tenant and the landlord, will still depend on the median income of the neighborhood. Even if there are more, smaller units, the land underneath each home is not becoming less scarce or more affordable.
What DC Council must do is take on the vacant lots and absentee housing and challenge landlords to put their undeveloped properties to use. Vacant lots can become urban community gardens to increase food security among families experiencing homelessness, and homes kept off the market for years can become the source of new life for a formerly homeless family. Creating such incentives can lead to larger conversations around urban planning and the greater future of DC.