Mi Casa es Su Casa: In Columbia Heights, a homeless shelter closes its doors, and nobody’s in a hurry to replace it.
Irving Street NW in Columbia Heights has gone through some growing pains in the last decade. Buildings have mushroomed on vacant lots, but haven’t yet filled out—glassy storefronts are still covered with brown paper, even as young people with disposable income pour into the residential towers clustered around the Metrorail station.
One thing hasn’t changed at all: La Casa shelter for men, a bunker-like building just west of the new Highland Park apartment complex. Tall white trailers loom in a concrete yard behind a chain link fence. Every morning at 7 a.m., about 70 men trickle out of the gates, mostly dispersing before the young professionals start scurrying along the narrow sidewalk on their way to work. Their neighbors glance incuriously through the fence, but don’t break their pace. “Sometimes, in the middle of the night, you hear people screaming,” says Kerry Porter, a young woman on her way out of Highland Park last Sunday morning. She says she didn’t know about the shelter before moving into a corner apartment overlooking it, and might have been more hesitant if she had.
“It’s really squalid back there,” adds another apartment dweller, who declined to give his name. “If you look from the rooftop, you’ll see rats, little kids and rats all together...I think the way it’s set up now is a disservice to the homeless. It looks like a concentration camp.”
Each of the five trailers holds 15 people in narrow bunks stacked three levels high, cushioned with thin, plastic-covered mattresses. The main building with fading murals on the side is an open hall, one wall lined with bunks, which are used to handle overflow during winter. Men start lining up at 3:30 p.m. and are let in at 4 o’clock, after which they’re served dinner and then shut in the trailers at 7 o’clock for the night.
But the trailers have been less crowded lately. In the shelter window, a sign warns residents that La Casa will be closing on Oct. 15, and the Department of Human Services will place them in individual apartments rented by private landlords. One by one, the men are disappearing to scattered sites around the city, as part of the District’s strategy to place the homeless in stable housing, under the theory that having your own place to live is the best foundation for recovery from alcoholism and substance abuse.
In La Casa’s case, though, something more than just strategy is at work: Donatelli Development, which received the land where the shelter sits back in 2002, is finally ready to build the second phase of Highland Park, and the trailers have to be gone on Nov. 1.
This wasn’t supposed to be yet another story of gentrification leaving homeless people stranded. According to the plans, Donatelli will leave space on Irving Street for DHS to build a new 70-unit community-based residential facility (CBRF, in development jargon) on the lot where trailers now sit.
But plans are one thing; reality is another. The needed $10 million in city funding still hasn’t been locked down. And you don’t have to be a cynic to wonder whether the District will actually muster the political and financial will needed to build housing for the homeless next to a fancy, brand new apartment complex. There’s almost no way the city would place a new homeless shelter in the middle of fast-developing Columbia Heights if it wasn’t already there; only a couple years ago, neighborhood opposition torpedoed the Central Union Mission’s plans to put a 170-bed shelter in Park View, just south of another new Donatelli project at the Georgia Avenue-Petwoth Metrorail station, in another rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.
No one wants to say so publicly, but a lot of the players involved in Columbia Heights seem to assume La Casa may run into similar problems. In a Zoning Commission hearing last week to review Donatelli’s proposal to add more density to its apartment building, chairman Anthony Hood called the new CBRF a “model amenity” that should be incorporated into more projects—but nobody knew where DHS was in the planning process for replacing La Casa. Commissioner Michael Turnbull noticed that the designs had windows on a wall that, assuming the CBRF is constructed, will look out onto the shelter.
“Is it an indication on how quickly D.C.’s going to be building the CBRF that you’ve got windows on the front?” Turnbull asked Chris Donatelli.
“That was a request that we agree with the Office of Planning that in case…”
“Something went wrong, or didn’t happen?” Turnbull interrupted.
“Or took longer than anticipated,” Donatelli finished. The hearing moved quickly on.
If La Casa has become a hurdle for developers and city officials to work around now, back in 1983, it was created to solve a problem. Nancy Shia, a former journalist and photographer who has lived in Adams Morgan for nearly four decades, recalls that the Mariel boatlift from Cuba had brought a population of poor, often-alcoholic Cuban men to the District. To keep them off the streets, she advocated for the creation of a bilingual shelter.
The shelter moved to its current location on Irving Street when the corner lot was empty and hosted weekly farmers’ markets. When Donatelli Development won the land in 2002, there was no mention of replacing La Casa. That changed when local non-profit Neighbors Consejo helped organize residents to advocate to keep the shelter there. The Columbia Heights Metrorail station had opened in 1999, but the influx of new development, was still years off.
“At that point, nothing was built, there were no neighbors to rise up in arms about any homeless people next to them,” says Elizabeth McIntire, who was the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for the area at the time.
When Highland Park opened in 2008, it couldn’t command the high rents that had been anticipated, prompting Donatelli to request an $8.5 million tax abatement from the city. The Office of the Chief Financial Officer’s fiscal impact statement said the District couldn’t really afford the abatement, but the council passed it anyway. Meanwhile, the money that had been set aside to rebuild La Casa disappeared: In 2007, the Fenty administration dissolved the NCRC and folded its assets into the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, and La Casa’s budget got lost in the shuffle. (Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, who had pushed for the shelter, now says “I don’t know” what happened to the money for La Casa.) The Department of Human Services now says it has $4 million for the project, and the remaining $6 million is in the District’s budget request from the federal government, which should pass this winter. But that’s not a sure bet.
“Election years, all kinds of crazy things happen,” says Laura Zeilinger, who oversees homeless services for DHS.*
And all along, the shelter—which could have been rebuilt when the first phase of Highland Park went up—just kept getting worse. Why spend money to improve something if it’s supposed to be entirely replaced?
Even if La Casa is rebuilt, it won’t be a shelter, as neighborhood advocates had initially expected. It’s the gentrified version of housing for the homeless—every man gets a room of his own (and the trailers will be replaced with a building that stands out less in the surrounding area). In the meantime, the city maintains that placing the residents in their own apartments alleviates the need for emergency shelter. “We don’t feel like that we’re taking something away,” says Zeilinger. “We think that we’re really adding a lot of value… It’s the right thing to do to replace 25-year-old trailers with housing. That is a good thing.”
This can be a huge hand up for the homeless, like Ronnie Anderson, who stays at La Casa every night. Consecutive strokes made an arm and a leg useless, so Anderson walks with a cane, stopping every few steps to rest. But he’s finally drug free, has been able to hold down a job as a plumber, and feels like the future is looking up.
Not everyone at La Casa, though, has it that together. “These other guys, I really don’t know,” Anderson says, before letting loose on the other shelter dwellers. “A lot of them, they don’t want to do anything…. They don’t know if the man’s gonna give them housing. If you’re rolling around like that, the housing man is not gonna give you a place, because you can’t pay rent.”
Phil Nguyen, hunched into a hoodie on his way out of the trailers on a cold morning says he’ll probably go to Virginia when the shelter closes. Others will probably end up at one of the city’s other men’s shelters, on New York Avenue NE and on the campus of St. Elizabeth’s, each of which hold well north of 300 people. They’re also hard to get to.
Though the Fenty administration has so far placed more than 1,000 people in permanent supportive housing units, it hasn’t made a dent in the shelter population, says Mary Ann Luby, an outreach worker with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. Moreover, she says, many of the apartments are located in heavily African American neighborhoods east of the river, which to La Casa’s many Latino residents will seem like a “foreign land.”
Luby would like to see emergency shelters, even smaller ones, in every ward. But if shelters are hard to take away—as the city learned when it closed the shelter in the Franklin School at 13th and K Streets NW in 2008—they’re even harder to open up. Especially in places that are becoming increasingly desirable for wealthy people with political clout to live.
“Everyone says, ‘Yes, we want to do something for the homeless,’ but no one wants to have it next door,” says Michael Ferrell, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless.
Despite a few complaints about panhandling and harassment of women by La Casa residents, the new Columbia Heights has accepted the shelter as a holdover from the area’s pre-development past. Many, like North Columbia Heights Civic Association president Jeff Zeeman, are looking forward to its replacement by a newer, more civilized La Casa, while emergency shelter goes… somewhere else.
“I do understand concerns about folks needing a place to go in the winter. I do hope those concerns can be addressed,” Zeeman writes. “If they are, this sounds to me like a win-win project that will benefit both the homeless, as well as advancing the sensible smart growth strategy of concentrating large scale development near Metro stations.” Right now, that looks like a pretty big “if.”
*CLARIFICATION, 11:40 a.m. – By "crazy things," Zeilinger was referring to the timing of the budget vote in Congress, and did not mean that federal funding for La Casa was in doubt.