Housing Complex

Playground Dispute Raises Questions About D.C. General’s Future

Can D.C. Make Rapid Rehousing Work?

A child outside D.C. General

Nearly everyone agrees that the D.C. General shelter is in rough shape. Nearly everyone agrees that it should be shut down before long. And yet those seemingly aligned sentiments are proving increasingly irreconcilable.

Last week, Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, who chairs the D.C. Council's human services committee, called for shutting down the shelter at the former hospital by year's end. The shelter was never intended to be permanent, and the subpar conditions there were publicized this spring following the disappearance of an 8-year-old girl who was living there.

But Graham's push came into conflict with a roadmap released the same day by 20 advocacy groups. That roadmap called for improvements to D.C. General, including better staffing and facility upgrades. Advocates worried that a campaign to shut the shelter down could both undermine the efforts to make improvements and lead to a shelter shortage, since alternate sites have yet to be identified.

Yesterday, the matter arose again at a D.C. Council hearing, in a different form. Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh introduced legislation to compel the administration to allow a new playground to be built on the D.C. General complex, and to identify potential sites for it within 30 days. The Homeless Children's Playtime Project, which works with children at D.C. General, says it's received pledges of funding from Pepco and other organizations to build the playground at no cost to the city.

"Unfortunately," said Cheh, "the District has to this point has not allowed the Homeless Children's Playtime Project and its funders to install a playground at D.C. General."

Ward 6 Councilmember Tommy Wells added, "It’s embarrassing that the Council has to introduce a bill to allow a free playground to be built at D.C. General."

So why has the administration held out? Two reasons. First, says Pedro Ribeiro, spokesman for Mayor Vince Gray, the city isn't persuaded that the Homeless Children's Playtime Project will actually be able to foot the full cost of the playground installation and site work. "There’s still some question about how much money has been secured from the private sector and how much the District government would have to put up," Ribeiro says. The funding breakdown "would depend on the scale of the playground and how much site work would have to be done. It is our understanding that the District would have to put up some costs."

But Playtime Project executive director Jamila Larson is confident the organization and its funders can cover the costs of the project. "Support from the business community, churches in the area, the [Advisory Neighborhood Commission], and the community at large has been overwhelming and it has been evident from the beginning that funding will be the least of our concerns," she says in an email. "We haven't sought out more donations until we get the green light but there is a lot of support already and even more waiting in the wings."

The second concern, of course, is the future of the shelter. Gray has called for D.C. General to be shut down, and three administration offices—the Department of General Services, the Department of Human Services, and the office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services—are looking at all available properties in the District's inventory to see if they might be suitable as replacement shelter spaces. If D.C. General won't be around for long, does it make sense to build a new playground there?

Cheh's answer is yes. Given that the allegedly temporary D.C. General shelter has already operated for seven years, there's little reason to think its end is imminent.

"It won’t be solved straightaway," Cheh said at yesterday's hearing. "It may even be some years, and the children there deserve a place to play outside."

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • Ward One Resident

    Too bad there isn't a national playground nonprofit (ahem Kaboom) with its headquarters in the District that could probably help out with a temporary playground....

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/housingcomplex/ Aaron Wiener

    Kaboom is likely to be involved.

  • Northwesterneer

    Jimminy Crickets. The city has proven time and time again that it is not competent to provide homeless shelters or other such facilities. Stop spending taxpayer money on a house of horrors that is responsible for Relisha Rudd. DC needs to shut down all homeless shelters immediately, stop financing them, and get out of that business entirely. Stop beating our heads against the wall to make something work that will never work- get out of the homeless shelter business entirely. shut them down, defund them, and walk away because we're not capable of addressing the issue without children going missing. Just stop already.

  • Cityzen

    I have to admit, I am sympathetic to the purity of Northwesterneer's position. There is an irreconcilable tension in the law which on the one hand requires the city to provide "emergency" shelter for homeless families, and on the other, to meet standards for safety that are consistent with long-term housing. Once a family's emergency needs are met, perhaps they could be provided with a voucher that would allow them to rent in a jurisdiction where the rents aren't so high. That might not be in the District. But again, "emergency" shelter seem to morph into a right to live in the District indefinitely. Being neither fish nor fowl, the current policy is downright dangerous and inhumane.

  • DCShadyBoots

    Why don't we ask Council-member Bowser considering she is over the committee responsible for development, maintenance, preservation, and regulation of the housing stock, including rental housing; and neighborhood development, improvement, stabilization, and urban affairs.

    What meaningful legislation has she introduced to turn this atrocity around. Ohhhh. Never mind. We all know the answer. She is waiting on someone else to do it so she can "sign on".

  • Northwesterneer

    Two infants died at DC General in 2009 and 2010. Why is this not mentioned in this City Paper article? Isn't it a salient point in how the City is unable to manage any kind of homeless shelter without children dying in it? Shut all the DC government shelters down.

    When I was a kid there was a family that owned a restaurant in the neighborhood and everyone used to joke that they lived in the back room. Every night that we ate there the teenage daughter did her homework in a booth in the back. I remember my mother telling me, and this was no later than 1982, probably more like 1980, that the girl got into medical school.

    That is how you break the cycle of poverty. These families should be crowded into the back room of the corner store that Dad runs and working like hell to become normal.

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