Housing Complex

How Many Homeless Shelters Is Too Many?

Potential homeless shelter at 1125 Spring Road NW.

Potential homeless shelter at 1125 Spring Road NW.

This winter may not be as bad as last winter, but it probably won't be gentle, either–especially those without rooves over their heads. The Department of Human Services is projecting ten percent greater need for shelter services, which means scouring the District for appropriate places to put something that few neighborhood residents want on their block, in part to avoid relying on the now-infamous D.C. General Hospital.

At last week's Council committee hearing on the winter plan for homeless services, DHS Director Clarence Carter said that his agency had found one prospect: 1125 Spring Road NW, now in the portfolio of the Department of Mental Health Services, which would only need showers to become a suitable shelter facility.

"It absolutely is a better choice than increasing capacity at D.C. General," said Carter, in response to questioning from Councilmember Tommy Wells, whose own Ward 6 hosts the hospital.

But the Spring Road site didn't make it into the latest draft of the winter plan. Advocates from the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless suspected that it had been kiboshed either by Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser or by the Mayor's office, which annoyed Wells no end.

"I have asked the residents of Ward 6 to really share a substantial amount of the responsibility for providing congregant facilities for those that need shelter," he said from the dais. "The NIMBYism of other parts of the city is untenable."

Near the end of the hearing, Bowser arrived to set the record straight. All she asked was that the community be consulted before a homeless shelter goes in–and Spring Road residents already tolerate two such facilities, totaling 88 beds (Ward 4 in general has been feeling overburdened by group homes).

"These neighbors have been mightily accommodating of their homeless neighbors," Bowser said, and then asked Carter if he would have informed community members about his agency's plans for the site before homeless people started showing up.

"We did not get to the place where we were allowed to have the conversation with the community," explained Carter. So at some point in the process, the Spring Road facility was taken out of consideration, without giving community members a chance to shoot it down.

And shoot it down they would, according to Park View blogger Kent Boese, who writes this morning that "Residents that are aware of this initiative are resisting the proposal...Several community leaders are of the opinion that D.C. General is a campus better suited to serve the needs of the homeless." The District had previously promised to issue a request for proposal with the idea of turning the building into apartments, possibly for seniors, but the RFP has yet to materialize.

The question then becomes: Do neighbors of a proposed homeless shelter have the right to consultation? Should community members have the power to veto homeless services nearby, like five people within a certain radius of a new bar have the power to protest its liquor license?

What we have now, in contrast to the relatively cut-and-dried ABRA rules, is de facto veto power. If a community gets pissed off enough about a new shelter, and they get the help of their councilmember–which is essentially why those protesting the Central Union Mission's plans for Georgia Avenue were successful in stopping the project, and neighbors of the Peaceoholics' 1300 Congress Street SE were not–they can essentially keep homeless services out of their neighborhoods, with no judicial process whatsoever.

There really should be an objective and fair set of metrics for figuring this out. The District only has so many buildings suitable for housing the homeless, after all, and a community's preferences should only be one of a set of weights on the scale, which would include concentrations of homeless services a given area as well as the expense of procuring others elsewhere. After all, homeless people have preferences too.

"It's surprising to housed people, sometimes," said Sue Marshall, executive director of the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness. "Homeless people are at least as place-attached as you and I are, and sometimes even more, because they've lost the physical building that attaches them to the neighborhood."

  • Brian

    Yes absolutely - tax paying neighbors should have the right to know when a homeless shelter is coming up.

  • Sally

    Everyone supports homeless shelters - as long as they're not located nearby.

  • Brian

    I think Georgetown would be a spectacular place for a homeless shelter and public housing.

  • Joe

    You've really got to be careful not to over-burden one neighborhood. Spring road has more than its fair share of shelters, as does Columbia Heights in general. These shelters do come with a quality of life overhead that cannot be ignored, especially when they are massed in one or two neighborhoods. Spread it out, they wouldn't even notice a 25 or 30 bed homeless shelter in Georgetown or Clevland Park.

  • clumping

    The reason that many of these services appear to be clumped is that they reuse some existing infrastructure where clumping wasn't necessary a bad thing, or they were inserted into unused/burnt out parts of the city. Unfortunately, the ease of repurposing these areas doesn't take into account how the new cluster of services will affect a neighborhood.

  • HillChris

    I think people would be more supportive of shelters in their neighborhood, or in general, if there was some plan to reduce the demand for them, versus just adding more and more, and becoming a greater magnet for the homeless from other nearby jurisdictions.

  • Amber

    "The District only has so many buildings suitable for housing the homeless..." What? "The homeless," by definition, are just people who need housing. They aren't some monolithic group that needs a specialized building (or who cause problems in the neighborhood, for that matter). And the other "shelters" on Spring Road aren't even shelters. One is a transitional housing program for men (yes, housing, not shelter) and the other is an apartment building that is used for families suffering a housing crisis. You can do better than this-- starting by not just talking the Councilmember at her word and actually looking into the facts. And maybe the bigger issue here-- one worthy of a follow-up column-- is what will happen to dozens of families this winter when they have no roof over the heads of their children because of some pre-emptive NIMBYism by Councilmember Bowser?

  • Anonymous

    @Amber - "he other is an apartment building that is used for families suffering a housing crisis"

    Fascinating. At what point, in your mind, does one go from being someone "suffering a housing crisis" to "homeless" and therefore count towards the Spring Road area's quota of homeless shelters? Similarly, at what point would I go from being "vertically challenged" to short?

    I can't believe you would find excuses why this area should have yet another public facility to add the crime magnet at 14th and Irving, the Park Morton, and the halfway houses located right there, to name just a few. And while you're at it, why don't you bury some nuclear waste there too?

    You can call it NIMBYism, and find some technical difference between the existing facilities and this one but the end result is simple: public facilities that are associated with crime and quality of life problems for neighbors. There are a disproportionate number of them already around here, and there is no debating that. This is not NIMBYism it's just plain fairness.

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