A side view of the gales school shelter at 65 Massachusetts Ave, NW.
Laura Thompson

Though advocates and homeless residents are relieved that the District has decided to keep the Gales School Shelter open for the duration of hypothermia season, many are still calling for more permanent downtown shelter space.

“The city’s decision to keep the shelter open this winter is a real victory for Gales residents. But there will still be a need for downtown shelter if Gales closes in 90 days,” said T.J. Sutcliffe, director of advocacy and social justice for So Others Might Eat.

City Administrator Robert Bobb said the District would leave Gales open until at least March 31 to provide enough beds during the cold winter months and, also, to give the Gales residents more time to transition to the new shelter locations. This last-minute change of heart came after much protest from the homeless community and advocates and just a week before Gales was scheduled to close on Dec. 19.

Once March 31 comes, the city will move forward with its plan to move the more than 100 men who live at Gales School to a site at 1355-57 New York Ave., NE and provide them a shuttle service from Gales to the new site. And the more than 50 women who live at Gales would move to the John Young Center, a hypothermia shelter in the Federal City Shelter, which is a few blocks away at 2nd and D streets.

Soon after this switch, construction on a new children’s advocacy center that will be housed at Gales will begin. The delay is not expected to have any major impact on the construction, which was not expected to begin until the spring.

“We recognize that some period of transition will be needed as the residents learn the locations of the new facilities and make arrangements for transportation to and from the new facilities,” he added. “We are all committed to doing everything we can to prevent hypothermia fatalities and improve services to those who live every day without housing,” Bobb said.

Two days before this announcement, John Mayer was found dead in a Northwest park; he is the first homeless person to die of hypothermia in the District this winter.

Though the facility on New York Avenue is brand new and will include places for job training and placement, healthcare, and other social services, it is also two miles away from Gales School and the downtown area where the majority of street homeless people congregate. Because it is so far from downtown, advocates are skeptical that the shelter will have a real impact on the homeless in the city. The Coalition of Homeless and Housing Organizations said that the city’s plan to bus Gales residents to New York Avenue is not a sufficient solution, since similar busing plans have lapsed before.

With or without busing, many in the homeless community are upset about the move to New York Avenue because the homeless are being forced to leave the downtown area.

“What the city is trying to do is get rid of all the downtown and low-barrier shelters,” said Ross Weisiger, a resident of Gales School and a homeless advocate. “They are saying that all of the business want us out of the way, but what we are saying is that we don’t want to be out of the way, we are part of the community and need a decent place to sleep and live.”

He said that instead of shuttling the homeless two miles away, the city needs to create more livable downtown shelter space, since around Union Station and city’s business district is where most of the homeless people find work and service providers and, most importantly, go about their daily routine.

“The most important thing is that they need downtown shelter space,” Weisiger said. “If they don’t keep a downtown shelter, they are going to have a lot more homeless people downtown on the streets than right now.”

The call for a new accessible shelter comes as the city’s homeless population is on the rise — approaching 18,000 for all of 2003 – with the street homeless population increasing by about 20%, according to homeless advocates.

Patricia Mullahy Fugere, executive director of Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said that the New York Avenue site is no replacement for downtown shelter and that the city should start looking for a new site in the city’s center. However, Fugere said that she was encouraged by City Administrator Bobb’s pledge to help all the city’s homeless.

“It was very hopeful to have a city official embrace the notion that there should be shelter in the downtown area, and he committed to working with the advocates to make that a reality,” she said. “They are going to need to find some place available in the downtown area for a new shelter, because using the New York Avenue as a replacement is not realistic,” she said.

The other downtown shelter that is threatened with closure is the Franklin School at 13th and K streets. This shelter was shut down in the summer and then opened for the winter, but it is expected to close once hypothermia season is over.

And Gales School Shelter has been on the chopping block in the past. At the end of the summer, DHS said that it was going to close the building on Sept. 19; in fact, a sign was even posted. However, the sign was taken down due to much protest. And ever since the Gales School Shelter opened in late 2000, its days have been numbered. The shelter opened originally as a temporary hypothermia shelter but ended up staying open year-round because of increased demand.