Housing Complex

D.C. General Is Awful. Closing It Could Be Worse.

More than 460 children live at D.C. General.

More than 460 children live at D.C. General.

Anyone who's even remotely interested in the welfare of the District's least fortunate residents should read the Washington Post's damning investigation into the deplorable conditions at D.C. General, the city's maxed-out, maligned, and only shelter for homeless families. The facilities are crumbling. Children are subject to urination in their mouths by day and roaches by night. Employees prey on residents' poverty to goad them into sex.

Cue the calls to close D.C. General!

Not so fast.

No one has argued that D.C. General is a good place to live. Thanks to the Post story, many people have now learned just how bad things are there. But let's look at what needs to happen for D.C. General to shut down. The city experienced a huge spike in the number of homeless families this past winter; the number more than doubled from the previous year until the end of January, when the city started placing homeless families on the basketball courts of recreation centers, a practice later deemed illegal. D.C. General was at capacity before winter began. It will likely be at or near capacity this winter, too.

Where should all these homeless families go? The most appealing option, of course, is to replace D.C. General with a better, more modern shelter. (Remember that D.C. General, a former hospital, was never intended to last this long as a shelter, or to house families year-round.) But good luck persuading any member of the D.C. Council to sign off on a new massive homeless shelter in his or her ward—or persuading a mayor or mayoral candidate to back a plan that'll likely turn off a whole neighborhood of voters.

OK, so how about opening a bunch of smaller shelters? The same problems apply: Even small shelters aren't exactly politically popular. If we can't muster the political will to open even one smaller shelter when our population of homeless families is exploding, instead pushing those families into deplorable conditions at rec centers, then how are we supposed to open a slew of them to replace D.C. General?

We could solve homelessness. That's good policy and politics. But that's not the direction we're moving in. As long as housing keeps getting more expensive and rents keep outpacing wages, we're going to have homeless families. Eliminating the city's only shelter for homeless families in hopes of a future without them is simply wishful thinking.

As long as we keep housing homeless families at D.C. General, problems will persist. It's not a building that's well suited to its current purpose, which wasn't the one for which it was built. It's old, but it won't get a major renovation since it's ostensibly temporary and everyone from neighbors to councilmembers wants to see it eventually shut down. Residents of the Hill East neighborhood near D.C. General have been promised that the shelter would soon be shut down and the broader site replaced by a mixed-use, community-enhancing development. The argue, not without merit, that it'd be unfair to them to renege on that promise, renovate D.C. General, and make it permanent. It would be an expensive and difficult process, one that would require the temporary relocation of the shelter's hundreds of residents—who knows where to—and would still leave the city with a single large family shelter, in better condition but not much easier to operate.

The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, the nonprofit that has a $13 million contract with the city to run D.C. General, deserves scrutiny from the city—clearly it's not doing its job as well as it should be, and so that contract should be re-examined. But the Community Partnership took over operations of the shelter in 2010 when the previous operator was canned for mismanagement and inappropriate contact with residents. Sound familiar? The residents of D.C. General deserve better management than they've received, but the track record of the past two operators does hint at the inevitable difficulties that come with having just one big family shelter housing hundreds of families.

The long-term solution to the D.C. General problem will require some political concessions on the part of the administration and the Council. Ultimately, a series of smaller shelters throughout the city would be a huge improvement on the status quo. One could imagine a compromise that'd place shelters at the planned mega-developments scattered across town: one at Walter Reed (Ward 4), one at St. Elizabeths (Ward 8), one at Hill East (Ward 7, bordering Ward 6), and so forth.

But unless and until that happens, D.C. General is most likely sticking around, more or less as is.

The city should of course do all it can to maintain a safe environment at D.C. General and fire employees who are acting inappropriately. Conditions there are bad, and need to be improved. But let's remember the alternative. Let's think about Sarah Drawn, who dreams of a room in D.C. General, problems and all, given her makeshift living environment that's compromising the health of her 1-year-old son. Or Melvern Reid, who used to sleep in a laundromat with her grandson when it was too warm out for the city to be obligated to provide them shelter. For these people, D.C. General would be a lifeline, decrepit as it is.

D.C. General is a terrible place to live, and the city needs to do more to ensure residents' safety. But closing it down could be much worse.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

  • Corky

    Interesting that Aaron Weiner proposes putting shelters in places far away from the bike riding gentrifiers. Wards 7 & 8 don't need any more poor people, thank you very much. We need to spread this misery around town so people will stop pretending that this problem will go away or that it is not their problem. It is. There was a big shelter at 14th and R until it was gutted and is currently being renovated to make more overpriced apartments or condos. This is what happens when the city encourages gentrification on steroids without regard to the fact that most people in this town don't make the kind of money required to live in these new developments. I say open a shelter on 14th again and another on Connecticut Avenue. H Street NE along the trolley car tracks? How about Georgetown? I hear the panhandling is pretty good over there. Might as well put the panhandlers where the action is.

  • Buzy Bee

    I sooo agree w/you Corky. Once homelessness starts to filter in the pricey neighborhoods then they'd think about building a shelter. It's so sad they most of DC is all about the money and not the people. BTW, we need a mental institution too now that St. Eve is gone. Do the councilmembers care about that. A BIG FAT "N0".

  • Typical DC BS

    Gee, this is a real conundrum. But think hard folks. What happens when you can't afford something? To left wing nitwits, the "solution" is to throw money at the problem and not think beyond today and tomorrow.

    Hate to break it to you folks, but cheap housing IS NOT COMING TO DC. Hate to break it to you, but there is NO RIGHT to subsidized housing long-term if you're healthy and able to work. It's called relocating somewhere that's cheaper and is affordable (PG County, anyone?).

    Keep the shelter at DC General - clean it up as necessary. But it should NOT be a long term solution.

    Maybe next time, if you want to get an idea of why there are so many homeless folks there, the CP writers could go talk to those folks and do a little "family history". The disfunction evident, aside from bad luck or health/mental issues, will astound you.

  • http://www.eugenepuryear.com Jon

    This is the mindset and "solutions" we get when our leadership's main priority is appeasing the gentrifiers and making sure that developers' investments are guaranteed handsome returns. We need a new voice on the Council, a people's voice. That's why I'm supporting Eugene Puryear.

  • Northwesterneer

    People know my opinion is that:
    1. Many of these homeless are "really" Maryland or VA residents and are not DC's responsibility and really should go back to their relatives' houses in Maryland.
    2. The DC government cannot successfully run homeless materials and resources and should shut them all down and let private charities run these.

    Regarding "putting" a shelter in a "rich neighborhood," apparently people think the cost of real estate is free. If the city purchases property in a gentrified neighborhood at $45 per square foot or in Ward 7 at $10 per square foot... whose going to make up the $35 per square foot Corky?

    There are hardly any overpriced condos in DC, the question is about your salary...

  • Corky

    Northwesterneer: May be overpriced is the right term. How about poor value for the money? A tiny one bedroom for $3500 a month is simply ridiculous, whether one can afford it or not--and I can, by the way. I'm just smarter than that.
    As for the price of real estate in so called rich neighborhoods--since the city is practically giving away land (see swap of Reeves Center for crap land in SW) it could require that developers contribute to the cost of housing the people they displace. The city forces similar requirements on developers all the time when the developer wants the land bad enough. The city has required that developers build a certain number of parking spaces or renovate a park or make road improvements as part of a development deal. Why can't it require that developers help alleviate the homeless problems that they create by driving up the cost of real estate and tearing down affordable housing units? There is no free lunch, but that axiom applies to developers too. They are not entitled to build in DC, they have to get permission from a variety of agencies. DC has a lot of arrows in its quiver that it is not using to address this problem.

  • chris lee

    Love how the "disingenuous white liberals" sieze upon stories like this.."spread the problem around" yeah..let's make the WHOLE city a shithole. Because "order and control" grows on trees..not as a result of SOME people having the wherewithal and organization to create and maintain stable and high end living.

  • Kes

    The big abandoned methadone clinic on Bladensburg Road, right across from the "Urban Pioneers" (*barf*) at Atlas Flats, would be a prime location for a smaller shelter. Close to several major bus lines, close to Trinidad Rec, walking distance to groceries. I live blocks away and would be very happy to see a shelter there.

    @Typical: "Maybe next time, if you want to get an idea of why there are so many homeless folks there, the CP writers could go talk to those folks and do a little "family history". The disfunction evident, aside from bad luck or health/mental issues, will astound you."

    Uh huh. So? Are you saying if these people had better upbringings, more stable families and employment, better education, their lives would be better and they likely wouldn't struggle with homelessness? In other news, the sun continues to rise in the west. Those "disfunctional" people are still here, still part of this city, and with the city running a year-over-year surplus, thanks in large part to all those rising real estate taxes, I don't see why we as a city can't resolve to help out the most "disfunctional" among us with some of that largesse being generated by the very forces putting housing out of their reach.

  • Kes

    Heh. East. Sun rises in the East. Disfunction! Bleeding hearts! NIMBY! Dog Parks!

  • Kes

    "There are hardly any overpriced condos in DC, the question is about your salary..."




  • chris lee

    It's interesting that the default reaction to "homelessness" is that it's the responsibility of the "homefull" to deal with it in ALL of its facets, eg: there is never discussion of handing out paint cans and brushes to the beneficiaries of this charity so THEY can help with the upkeep..maybe ask SOME of the able body to take on laundry duties, night-watch and basic maintenance..is that heresy?

  • I. Rex

    Aaron's logic doesn't compute. He seems to correctly agree that it's a terrible idea to keep DC General there or even put a new building there because concentrating so much poverty in one place will never turn out well no matter how nice the facility is. We've seen this enough times with large scale projects like Cabrini Green, etc. Yet because of the lack of political will to create smaller shelter citywide, he says don't shut down DC General. But, if we follow that inane logic, DC General and its horrible concentrated poverty conditions will go on forever and scar countless more children. The answer is the opposition of what Weiner suggests: give a firm shut down date for DC General within one year. Then and only then will the rest of the city get something done about creating smaller, more humane, shelters citywide. Otherwise, the rest of the city would have to pay the consequences of seeing all these people staying on the streets. As long as they are in DC General, it's out of sight, out of mind.

  • chris lee

    I.Rex..great idea..because it's a finite limited problem and there are an infinite number of places to build "discreet" humane shelters with a backyard and wi-fi.

  • Northwesterneer

    Kes, in the 1980s I thought homelessness could be resolved by our efforts. And I tried to work hard, really, in my way, to help this.

    What I realize 30 years later is that there are people for whom even staying in Section 8 housing is an impossibility. People with no interest in working in school and no interest in getting a job outside of school. The older I get, the more sad stories I hear.

    One friend of mine, longtime DC resident who moved to PG County, talked about being constantly beset by the children of her nieces and nephews, where they would move their kids into her basement for 3 months until they "got on their feet" with the concept that she would help them find a job, only they never went to interviews and just grubbed money from people. A niece who she thought was going to college but ended up with no job, no classes, and a sugar daddy who was giving her money in exchange for... let's just say, mortifying this Christian woman.

    I don't begin to know how to address this, but I know that the city can't help.

  • chris lee

    "Kes, in the 1980s I thought homelessness could be resolved by our efforts. And I tried to work hard, really, in my way, to help this."

    It's the fault of the "homefull" that there are "homeless". The convoluted calculus. It's a genuine predicament because charity and empathy are higher functions.

  • Northwesterneer


    DCHA owned and operated a property in my neighborhood that was given to a family to live in as a program. I learned about this because the teenage daughter got pregnant by the leader of the local drug crew. I worked with the police to monitor the crew which had moved from one stoop to the stoop in front of this house. We got the crew arrested (several months later) and the family got evicted, thankfully.

    I can't say how common that kind of pattern is for moving families into single family homes in established neighborhoods- pretty sure that house was sold the next year- but my only experience with DCHA housing a family in our neighborhood ended with teenage pregnancy and jail time. (I presume there were other, more successful, families as well)

  • chris lee

    I hear you "northwesterner" I am criticizing people who approach this problem like it was just a problem of textbook numbers. These are real, often chronically dysfuctional people, and all your good intentions aren't going to solve the problem neatly. That isn't to say compassion is a bad thing, that's the nature of the "class of people " who assume the altruism role in attempting to remedy this. Trust me, the "beneficiary class" wouldn't do the same and rarely shows any recognition or gratitude for said charity and benevolence.

  • Typical DC BS

    Nice to see a few people (Northwesterneer & Chris Lee) "get it". There are some genuinely unfortunate folks who fall on hard times and need a helping hand to "get back on their feet". Eventually, most are able to get back up with some temporary help.

    Then there are the chronic losers that Northwesterneer describes so well. No amount of help will benefit them because all it allows them to do is become a parasite for decades on society and allow them to raise more generations slated for disfunction, all paid for by the taxpayers because of zero standards allowed by the bleeding hearts with no common sense.