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.