CityFixer

A Case for Homeless Shelter Networks as Basic Infrastructure

D.C.’s promising new plan would equitably distribute such facilities across the city and serve more residents.

Image Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Muriel Bowser, the mayor of Washington, D.C., is making serious moves on homelessness.

On Tuesday, Bowser announced detailed plans to close D.C. General Hospital by 2018, replacing the de facto homeless shelter with a system of smaller satellite shelters spread throughout the city. Seven of the city’s eight wards would receive a homeless shelter, each one with a capacity of 29-to-50 units. (A women’s shelter is already planned for Ward 2, the lone holdout in this scheme.)

No one approves of using D.C. General Hospital as a shelter for even one second longer than is necessary, much less two years. The facility is a nightmare: a haven of violence, sexual abuse, substance abuse, and systemic neglect. Ever since the disappearance of Relisha Rudd, an 8-year-old who may have been kidnapped by a shelter janitor in early 2014, officials have searched for a viable alternative. It is beyond time to shut it down. “Despite its intended purpose as a sanctuary, the shelter is too often beset by dysfunction, decay and disease,” writes The Washington Post.

Not everyone approves of that alternative now that it has arrived, despite the desperate need of D.C. families experiencing homelessness. Predictably, the plan has been met with praise from some quarters and opposition from others. With one member excepted, the D.C. City Council approves the mayor’s plan. Just after the mayor announced the plan, the mood seemed tepid in the neighborhoods where those shelters will be placed.

“I don’t see how this many more uninvested families and individuals rotating through this facility can be of help to our struggling neighborhood,” writes Nancy Roth, commissioner for one affected Advisory Neighborhood Commission, in an email to a Ward 4 listserv regarding a 49-unit shelter.

Uninvested. Uninvested! The soul recoils at the heartlessness of the euphemism. Elsewhere, some critics didn’t bother to blunt their objections to Mayor Bowser’s plan to build homeless shelters in D.C. neighborhoods. In Ward 1, as Borderstan’s Tim Regan reports, a group circulated a flyer that spelled out its opposition to a 29-unit shelter at 10th and V Streets NW in four bullet points:

  • Congestion
  • Loitering
  • Safety
  • Decreased Property Values

“This is NOT a winning proposition for our neighborhood that has made great progress over the years,” the notice reads, emphasis retained. There’s now a website, 10th and V Shelter, objecting to the plan on the grounds that the process didn’t involve community input.

On Thursday night, the community got that chance. The city convened meetings in all eight wards to take public feedback on the plan. Reports from every ward  revealed something surprising: a sophisticated, even heartening, debate. The Washington Post’s Perry Stein reports, for example, that most of the residents who turned up in Ward 1, one of the wealthier and whiter parts of the city, largely supported the 10th and V Street shelter. (They mostly wanted to complain about noise from a popular neighborhood bar.)

The city’s council members may not have had much say in the matter, but most of them are on board now. According to WAMU’s Martin Austermuhle, only Ward 5 council member Kenyan McDuffie has expressed skepticism about the plan. Hesitation may be warranted in Ward 5. Motels in this area already serve as some of the largest family shelters in the city. Moreover, regarding the new shelter specifically, Austermuhle and Washington City Paper’s Matt Cohen report that the site is industrial, remote, and insufficiently connected with the area’s residential community.

Judging from dispatches by diligent reporters at The Washington Post and Washington City Paper, residents all around the city expressed two common frustrations: They weren’t given much notice, and they worried about other neighborhoods bearing their fair share of the load. Maybe Thursday wasn’t a NIMBYpocalypse after all.

A working shelter network, including the kind of single-room occupancy facilities that D.C. is planning to build (under the term “dormitories”), is a critical part of a city’s infrastructure—now more than ever. Like any infrastructure, the network needs to be developed equitably across the city’s neighborhoods, both to distribute the public burden and to serve residents where they are. It goes without saying that it’s important to remember that families experiencing homelessness are people, not a public utility or negative externality. With a few exceptions, District residents kept the fundamental humanity of their fellow residents in mind on Thursday night.

While the debate in D.C. is an encouraging one, to some extent residents shouldn’t be involved in this decision. Given any say in the matter, any resident would rather not see a homeless shelter built right next door. When everyone makes a decision guided by self interest, the city winds up with a solution such as D.C. General: remote, forbidding, a civic nightmare. The city can do better, and thankfully, the people know it.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps is a writer at CityLab. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.