Housing Complex

Is the City Moving Homeless Women Into a Morgue? Not Exactly.

Can D.C. Make Rapid Rehousing Work?

A child outside the D.C. General shelter

A poster to the "newhilleast" neighborhood listserv sounded the alarm on Friday: The city is about to move homeless women into a former morgue.

"In their infinite wisdom — or is it brain death, I sometimes wonder — DC functionaries want to move the current Harriet Tubman shelter for homeless women across Res. 13 into the building that, until, a few months ago, housed the DC morgue," the poster wrote, referring to the site known alternately as Reservation 13 and Hill East that houses the homeless shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital. "They say the smell of death is no longer apparent — they've aired the place out and 'remediated' traces of formaldehyde and other chemicals they encountered. All this was claimed by DC functionaries who came to a community meeting last night at the SE Branch library to discuss a desired zoning change."

A long thread began, filled with indignation at the treatment of homeless residents and the city's general foot-dragging on the promised redevelopment of the unsightly Hill East site, which, 40 years after the first plan for development, is only just barely underway with the selection of a developer last year to rebuild a small portion of the site.

But on the question of the morgue, neighbors—and Tubman residents—can rest easy: The city's homeless women won't be sleeping in rooms once inhabited by corpses.

"Building 27 was previously used by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner; however, the particular areas of the building proposed for shelter use were once office space," Department of Human Services spokeswoman Dora Taylor explains in an email. "Furthermore, although the areas once used as a morgue are not designated for shelter use, the District has performed all required environmental cleanup in those spaces. Minimal construction work is required to convert building 27’s existing office spaces to shelter sleeping rooms and shelter staff office space. Work includes, but is not limited to new partitions, bathrooms, showers, flooring, painting, HVAC upgrades, etc."

The current home of Tubman, known as Building 9, poses environmental and safety hazards to residents, according to the city. But the rehabilitation of Building 27 also raises questions, given the debate over the neighboring family shelter at D.C. General. The shelter, which opened in 2007, was never intended to be permanent. City officials have stated their intention to shut it down amid poor conditions, with Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham, who chairs the D.C. Council's human services committee, calling for it to be closed by year's end. The administration of Mayor Vince Gray has also resisted the construction of a new playground on the D.C. General site, in part because it might not make sense if the shelter will be shut down soon.

If not a playground, then why a new women's shelter? Taylor says the shelter move won't get in the way of any planned development of the site. Building 9 will be demolished once the shelter moves, and won't be used for any other purpose until redevelopment. The portion of D.C. General that's home to Building 27 is expected to be ready for development in about five years, according to the office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery