Franklin Park renovations begin, leaving some homeless residents unsure where to go
People experiencing homelessness, and the rest of the public, will lose access to Franklin Park due to a 12-month renovation project organized by the National Park Service and the Executive Office of the Mayor beginning July 1. The renovation began with a clean-up conducted by the National Park Service on June 30. When Street Sense went to press, fencing was planned to be constructed around the park on July 1.
First proposed in 2005, the $18 million redevelopment project includes a cafe-pavilion, a new children’s garden, relocation of paths, Capital Bike Share stations, and a central flag-stone plaza with a fountain. After a partnership between the National Park Service, the District, and Downtown D.C. Bid was solidified in 2012, the organizations developed a planning effort that took into account community input, including from public meetings with people experiencing homelessness.
The partnership also had to seek Congressional approval to cooperatively manage the federal park, since Congress oversees the District’s budget. That approval was received in February 2019.
Franklin Park is an unofficial home for multiple outreach services, and its residents rely on the park for a place to sleep and receive services provided by businesses and nonprofits. Now, its residents aren’t sure what comes next.
Darren, a homeless resident in the park, “had no idea” where he would go after the closure and explained that he had been on a housing list for almost 12 years.
“I feel that Mayor Bowser should have taken that $13 million that she added to renovate this park into housing for the homeless. You have 900 homeless families alone. You’ve got messed up shelters,” said Darren. “I have not seen one building to get people off the street. You are building all this stuff for what? To be a part of gentrification?”
The 2020 point-in-time count found that the number of homeless families in D.C. decreased to 767 households. The number of homeless individuals did increase slightly to 3,937, including 652 people living outside.
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The development project will require a $13.9 million investment from the Mayor’s office. The Downtown D.C. BID will invest $750,000 towards maintaining the park after renovations, according to a Washington Post report.
The park was formerly neighbored by Franklin Shelter, which inhabited the national historic landmark Franklin School, on its eastern edge. The shelter opened in 2002 in response to a rise in hypothermia deaths that year. Never intended to be permanent, the facility was closed in 2008, despite providing shelter to as many as 300 people at certain points.
That building has become the soon-to-open Planet Word museum of linguistics. But even in its absence, the park has remained a gathering place for people experiencing homelessness in the District. Nonprofit organizations like Martha’s Table take advantage of the concentration of people to provide food, clothes, and other kinds of services.
While the park is closed, at least 16 such nonprofits have been invited by the D.C. government to set up outreach services in booths along Vermont Avenue between H and I streets NW, near the McPherson Square Metro stop, on Saturdays and Sundays starting on July 11.
People experiencing homelessness can also access resources at the Downtown Day Service Center, which is located in the nearby New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Due to the public health crisis, those resources are now provided in a triangle park next to the church. The Downtown Day Service Center was opened in February 2019 by the BID, in collaboration with the D.C. Department of Human Services and local nonprofits Pathways to Housing and HIPS. The day center previously offered restrooms, showers, lunchtime meals, and emergency clothing between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays and bagged lunches to go between 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. every day. It closed in March in response to the coronavirus pandemic, while still providing meals in the triangle park, and has since begun offering the other indoor resources by appointment only.
DHS is also encouraging people experiencing homelessness to call the shelter hotline (202-399-7093) for help accessing services.
Jassi Bindra, executive chef at the nearby restaurant Punjab Grill, said the grill will offer meals to homeless residents in the area regardless of the change. The restaurant’s kitchen staff has been taking lunchtime meals to Franklin park since the beginning of the health crisis. After the mayor’s March 19 stay-at-home order, the restaurant switched from weekly to daily meals.
“We will still be continuing bringing the meals and we will look for the Metro stations nearby,” said Bindra. “Our services will not stop and we will find places to feed the homeless.”
Not all outreach efforts at the park will continue, however, due to COVID-19-related financial implications. Street Church, a program started by the Church of Epiphany, served lunch and held religious services at the park every Tuesday.
“We had already been making plans to relocate, we were probably going to use the New York Presbyterian triangle,” said Rev. Glenna Huber. “With COVID, we are not able to function at capacity. Our revenue streams have been either completely shut off or severely limited.”
According to Bindra, residents he talked to understood the change and will be moving to different parks. “I think it is well thought out,” said Bindra. “They are provided a sheet where all the services that will be provided are mentioned.”
Still, some residents were doubtful that the renovations to the park would benefit them in the end.
George Rivera, another man experiencing homelessness who had been living in Franklin Square, had been skeptical as to whether the city would really close the park after previous rumors of closure were not born out., He did not know what residents would do in response.
“Where are we going to go? Where are we going to end up? You kick us out of this park and you are going to disperse us to where?” Rivera said. “That’s my concern because at least here there’s a certain amount of safety. There’s a certain amount of belonging.”
Neither the D.C. Department of Human Services nor the National Park Service responded to requests for comment. The Downtown BID did not make anyone available for an interview but provided a statement.
Matthew Gannon contributed reporting.