Low-barrier shelter residents say staff abuse them amid ‘terrible’ conditions during COVID-19
This article is part of our 2020 contribution to the DC Homeless Crisis Reporting Project in collaboration with other local newsrooms. The collective works will be published throughout the day at DCHomelessCrisis.press.
Lajuan Baylor has been homeless since 2002, and lived on the streets of D.C. for 17 years. She started staying at the Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter in December under advice that it would put her on the fast-track to housing. But 10 months later, Baylor is still waiting. And she says the conditions and abuse at the shelter are wearing her out.
“It’s depressing … in here, I get sick because I get depressed,” Baylor said. “And that’s not like me. I’m a fun woman.”
The D.C. Department of Human Services conducted a deep clean of the shelter on Sept. 22, casting all its residents out on the front lawn for the day. Usually, low-barrier shelters like this one on the D.C. General campus in Southeast would open only at night from 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. However, it has been running 24/7 since March due to the pandemic.
DHS Chief of Staff Larry Handerhan told Street Sense Media that deep cleans are usually run during shelters’ off-hours — but now that residents are in the building 24/7, staff had to temporarily remove everyone.
“This year, we know it’s super disruptive,” Handerhan said. “I wouldn’t want to be kicked out of my house for a day.” But the deep clean would help prepare the shelter for the high-intake hypothermia season, he said, so it had to be done.
While the shelter was closed, DHS ran a resource fair on the lawn, directing residents to fill out a Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tools (SPDAT) form, an assessment that updates a resident’s information in the city’s database to be matched to housing assistance. Other tables at the fair included voter registration resources and help for claiming unpaid CARES Act stimulus checks from the IRS.
@DCHumanServ set up a resource fair to coincide with the deep clean, so that residents out on the lawn may sign up for housing services like SPDATs, or even register to vote. #homelessness pic.twitter.com/srf58WjQbv
— Athiyah Azeem (@AthiyahTA) September 22, 2020
As Baylor waited on the lawn, she eyed her case manager standing in a tent. Baylor filled out her third SPDAT in July, which produces a numeric score on a “vulnerability index” to triage who is most in-need of housing. When capacity opens up anywhere in the city, the scores are used to identify people whose needs match the type of housing assistance that is available. Administrators then review this shortlist at a group meeting with case managers who advocate on the behalf of their clients.
This process was put on hold in March as service providers reeled to adapt to the pandemic and related closures. Housing matches through the Coordinated Assessment and Housing Placement program resumed on May 4. DHS told Street Sense Media that case work continued via telephone during this period.
Baylor said she was told by her case manager that she scored high on the SPDAT and qualified for permanent supportive housing, a perpetual subsidy coupled with supportive services. But her case manager has yet to update her on her progress in over two months. She was also approved for Interim Disability Assistance that could help pay for housing, but that was nine to ten months ago.
The morning of the deep clean, residents had to remove all of their belongings, too. While a few had luggage or canvas bags, most were left carrying their things out in black garbage bags provided by shelter staff.
Residents were told they could only bring “two medium-sized bags” into the shelter when it reopened. All residents interviewed for this article said no measurements were given to define this limitation. Only when they lined up to re-enter the building did staff members tell them that, when full, the black garbage bags supplied by the shelter were considered to be bigger than a medium-sized bag. Thus only one full garbage bag worth of items could be brought back in.
This is the agenda for the day. Residents have attended the fair and gotten their lunches, but there isn’t any sign of “additional activities.”
“Nothing,” said a shelter resident. “The additional activities here are sitting outside waiting to go back inside with bags.” pic.twitter.com/0ZPHu3YiLw
— Athiyah Azeem (@AthiyahTA) September 22, 2020
“There’s a lot of women here who have been here for a long time,” said Charner Snow, a shelter resident. Snow said long-term residents accumulate belongings through shelter donations.
“This is kind of the unintended consequence of not being able to come in and out all day,” said Amanda Chesney, the executive director of housing and homeless services at Catholic Charities. She said the shelter always had a two medium-sized bag requirement, but as residents accumulated items while self-quarantining in the shelter, they were not regularly screened for the amount of belongings they had.
So for many residents, the belongings they carried out could not all be carried back in.
“Imagine putting your life in two medium-sized bags,” Snow said. “I have to lose … all my stuff to accommodate them? When they should be accommodating me?”
Belongings that didn’t make the cut were left strewn across the shelter’s lawn for several days. In the end, shelter staff carted them away in garbage bins and threw them in the dumpsters behind the building. Althea Thompson, a shelter resident, said a staff member told her they would be requesting a truck to throw out all the remaining bags outside. All bags have been cleared off the lawn as of Oct. 6, according to Elizabeth Beltran, a shelter conditions expert at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.
“Some people don’t have clothes no more,” Thompson said, two days after the deep clean. Frustrated, she repeatedly said, “I’m tired, I just want to get out of here.”
Due to COVID-19, city shelters are supposed to provide access to beds 24/7. Some residents, like Althea Thompson, have lived day and night at Harriet Tubman for much of the health crisis. She transferred from the King Greenleaf Recreation Center’s hypothermia shelter in May, and has maintained a bed at Harriet Tubman for four months.
One night in August at 11 p.m., Thompson went outside to smoke a cigarette. The shelter allows residents 15-minute breaks to smoke after the shelter “lights-out” policy begins at 10 p.m. But Thompson said a shift change happened and the overnight staff barred her from re-entering the building.
She was only allowed to re-enter after she called her community support worker (CSW), Shai-dam Akwo, to help talk to staff and resolve the situation over the phone.
CSWs are third-party individuals who help connect low-income people and people experiencing homelessness to mental health resources. Akwo isn’t expected to mediate such situations, but he said this was the fifth time he’s had to intervene.
“Staff look at the people like they are outcasts, that they are nothing. That they are failures,” Akwo said.
Baylor and Thompson’s experiences are similar to those of five other residents at the shelter who were interviewed for this article.
Beltran has spoken to eight women at Harriet Tubman since May, five of which still remain there. According to her, all eight women detailed a unanimous experience where staff completely separate themselves from the residents in a way that feels alienating.
All residents interviewed for this article said attempting to resolve situations with staff or the contracted security guards does not work as they protect one another. Several residents said they filed grievances about staff or guard behavior to the front desk this summer, but have never heard anything back.
Chesney, the Catholic Charities executive, said she had not heard complaints about staff behavior until Street Sense Media brought this up to her.
“Anytime I get a report of something like this … from a resident, whether anonymously or in person, we are obligated to investigate,” Chesney said. “We encourage clients to let us know if anything is going on that is really not in line with our values and expectations of staff or vendors on site.”
She encourages residents to directly call the Catholic Charities anonymous whistleblower hotline, 1-877-426-7060 or 202-266-3069, where complaints will supersede staff and file directly with the Housing and Homelessness Services office.
Handerhan was also not aware of complaints of verbal abuse by security guards that were brought up in an interview. He said residents can file Incident Report Forms with DHS’s oversight unit, the Office of Program Review, Monitoring and Investigation (OPRMI).
“We want people to [send complaints] directly to us, so we can address it,” Handerhan said.
The Legal Clinic has documented 311 complaints from Tubman residents over the years, five of which are still open.
Yet, there seems to be confusion among residents on which hotline to call, as residents are given multiple phone numbers for various services. Snow said she called the DHS shelter hotline in March to ask for shelter during the hypothermia season, and was promptly given a bed at King Greenleaf Recreation Center. She transferred to the Harriet Tubman Shelter in May, and has called the same number she used to access shelter 3 to 4 times in the past five months to complain about poor treatment and conditions. Snow said she was never made aware of the whistleblower hotline, and has yet to receive any response to those complaints.
The nonprofit that is contracted to manage the shelter hotline, United Planning Organization, said in an email that they do not handle shelter complaints.
Baylor receives mental health treatment from NYA Health Services, and takes medicine for a mental illness. Tubman is the first shelter she has ever stayed in, and she was not fully aware of its strict regulations.
A standard regulation for DHS shelters, pre-pandemic, is for clients to keep all items off their beds and to remove all belongings when leaving the shelter. Staff members would throw away anything on top of a bed if it has been left empty for a period of time.
Once, Baylor had her “important papers” and medicine on her bed, left in the morning, and came back in the evening. “They threw away all my important papers and my medicine,” Baylor said. “I had to be rushed to the hospital … because I didn’t have my medicine.” Baylor said she later dug through the dumpsters behind the shelter for her medicine, but could not find it. The only thing staff members left was her slippers at the foot of her bed. Baylor stated staff filed a report for her at the front desk, but nothing came of it.
DHS contracts The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness (TCP) to run D.C.’s homeless shelters, and TCP in turn contracts Catholic Charities to run a portion of its emergency/low-barrier shelters. According to residents living in these emergency shelters, complaints about “strict rules” are common. Families who stayed at an emergency overflow shelter in a hotel in Northeast, also contracted by TCP, called the temporary shelter “the compound.” The rules state children could not eat their meals alone, run in corridors, or play outside.
When contacted for this article, TCP’s only response was to redirect questions to DHS for comment.
“They treat us like we’re in jail,” Snow said. She talked about how, despite the shelter being open 24/7 for the pandemic, residents who do not check in at the staff front desk between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. each day risk losing their bed. On top of that, residents say they have a 10 p.m. “curfew.”
“I don’t get why we gotta check-in if we have curfew. And they can see you!” Thompson said. “They can see you in here all day. And if you don’t go to the front desk and say you’re checking-in, they say you ain’t checked-in.”
Amanda Chesney, the Catholic Charities executive, told Street Sense Media that it isn’t a curfew, but that the shelter initiates a lights-out policy at 10 p.m. Most residents interviewed referred to it as a curfew.
As for the 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. check-in period, Chesney said that is when the shelter can perform health screenings for every resident to check for COVID-19 symptoms.
“We have been given nurses [by the Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services] to help with those screening times, and that is the time that the nurses are on site,” Chesney said. She emphasized that residents who want to visit family or have obligations that keep them outside the shelter after 7 p.m., can arrange scheduled absences.
However, there are instances where staff may miss a scheduled absence.
Snow works overnight shifts at Target, and sometimes has to take extra shifts that make her miss her check-in. Once, while Snow was at work, staff bagged up all of her belongings.
“And went through my bags. I had my cashew nuts and stuff in there, and they gave it out to the other residents,” Snow said. She believes the staff was being malicious. “They knew I was at work, they was just being funny.”
All residents interviewed for this article say the shelter does not provide breakfast — only juice, granola bars or fruit cups. Diabetics like Snow cannot have any of those options. She settles for eating instant noodles and drinking coffee. “But I can’t get to the hot water in the morning for my coffee,” Snow said. She and other residents say staff members prevent them from using the microwaves or accessing the hot water machines in the morning.
Handerhan, the DHS chief of staff, said he was not aware of this restriction.
“Harriet Tubman is unique, in that they are using a generator as a power source,” Beltran said. Several residents reported the building ran on the generator for two to four months.
“The lights go off and on, off and on,” Snow said.
She described the staff shutting off the generator at 7:30 a.m. on the day of the deep cleaning in order to get residents out of the building. Three other residents independently recalled the same series of events from that morning. Because the electricity was cut off, residents could not use the elevator and had to vacate the building using stairs.
Electricity issues date back to May 2019, when WJLA reported 100 shelter residents endured a complete power outage, going two nights without lights or ventilation.
Jones said she called PEPCO, an electrical company that services D.C., on the morning of the deep clean, and customer service told her that the shelter, Building 27 on the campus, was not in their system. This led several residents to believe the building is not even connected to the electrical grid.
Unbeknownst to shelter residents, Building 27 was taken off the generator and put back on normal power on Sept. 22, the day of the deep clean.
“Building 27 on the D.C. General campus remains on the electrical grid,” said Keith Anderson, the director of the Department of General Services, in an Oct. 6 statement to Street Sense Media. DGS said a “faulty feeder,” or wiring circuit that feeds electricity into the building, went down on July 13, and that DGS has worked with PEPCO to rectify the issue. “While this work was being performed, the building was operating from generator power,” the statement continued.
Additionally, Anderson said the D.C. General campus is listed and metered as one entity, so PEPCO would not have Building 27 itemized in their system.
Multiple residents said they were unaware that the electrical issue was rectified. But Jones confirmed on Oct. 7 that she no longer hears the generator.
Another infrastructure issue is airflow. The building used for Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter is a former morgue, and resident’s rooms have windows that are sealed shut. DGS said that some of these windows, when built, were not intended to open.
“The air is better now, since they did the deep cleaning,” Thompson said, a week afterward. “Before that, the air [conditioner] went out completely [on Sept. 18,] so there was no circulation there because the windows don’t open.”
Another resident said there was no air for two weeks in October 2019. “Clients called emergency, emergency comes and says it’s 98 degrees inside,” said the resident, who spoke under the condition of anonymity to avoid backlash from shelter staff. “There’s no air coming in or coming out. It’s sealed windows.”
“This summer I’ve been laying on the floor,” Jones said, “It’s the only cool place for me to lay because I can’t breathe.”
In 2012, the former morgue was vacated by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Then-Mayor and current Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray, at the time, described the move to The Washington Post as a necessary upgrade due to air circulation concerns.
DGS said they are aware of the air circulation complaints and have been working periodically to rectify the issues this year. The department said they are waiting on parts, expected to arrive this month, to fully fix the building’s chiller units — a component of HVAC systems that will be under incredible stress operating in the weather between summer and fall, where temperatures can swing from 40° to 70° daily.
In 2014, residents at the Harriet Tubman Women’s Emergency Shelter, then located within a crumbling wing of the D.C. General Hospital, were relocated to the former morgue as a temporary location.
The hospital, which also served as the District’s only family shelter, was closed in October 2018.
Handerhan, the DHS chief of staff, confirms that the location is still temporary, but they will also be renovating the building. He confirmed that among other renovations, the sealed windows are an issue DHS will be working with DGS to rectify.
The city’s 2015-2020 strategic plan to make homelessness “rare, brief, and nonrecurring” included replacing its low-barrier shelters once the new family facilities were near completion. According to a September 2019 progress report on implementation of the plan, development of a replacement for the 801 East Men’s shelter was underway, and funding had been set aside for the replacement of Harriet Tubman.
An update to the plan, covering the next five years, was expected to be approved this spring but delayed due to the onset of the pandemic. A draft of that plan, reviewed at a Jan 30 Interagency Council on Homelessness meeting, included the objective to “Identify land, develop design concept (based on feedback from stakeholders, including clients with lived experience), and complete construction of Harriet Tubman replacement facility (project already funded).”
“But really, the hope is that people move to housing,” Handerhan said. He noted that in November 2019, DHS received a $3.1 million annual rent subsidy to run permanent supportive housing facilities in the Hill East campus, where D.C. General is situated.
Mayor Bowser also allocated $16.3 million toward housing vouchers and housing assistance — like the permanent supporting housing program — for fiscal year 2021, which began Oct. 1.
“It is a top priority within the DGS Portfolio Division to identify a new space for [the Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter] for DHS,” Anderson said in the DGS statement. The department posted a solicitation for land or existing buildings to relocate shelter residents on March 2, and is still open to offers. Responses to the solicitation can be submitted electronically to [email protected].
Handling the COVID-19 Outbreak
On March 29, Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter received its first positive case of COVID-19.
A number of the shelter’s residents have been in quarantine since then — with two saying they’d been in quarantine three times each. Individuals who tested positive stayed in separate rooms at the Days Inn on 4400 Connecticut Ave NE and other hotels that were contracted to quarantine people experiencing homelessness.
Jones recalled a 70-year-old woman who was symptomatic of COVID-19 that she said was made by staff to sit outside the shelter building for 12 hours on a rainy day, with no food, water, or access to a bathroom.
“I tested positive [for COVID-19] in April,” Jones said. “I waited 3 days before I told the staff” to avoid similar treatment. Jones is one of the two residents who said they had contracted COVID-19 three times.
“If you go to quarantine, there is no guarantee you will be tested,” Jones said, referring to her personal experience. “Some of the women have got to quarantine and returned without being tested. And they’re not retesting to make sure you don’t still have the virus in your system before you return.”
Following the shelter’s first coronavirus case, Beltran was told by her clients that staff vacated a floor for deep cleaning due to a possible COVID-19 outbreak. Sixty to 70 residents on that floor were sent to a dining room on another floor, crowded alongside other women in the shelter, according to Beltran.
Jones and Thompson recalled this incident, stating the dining room was so crowded they could barely breathe.
Mayor Muriel Bowser issued a stay-at-home order on March 30, but exempted people experiencing homelessness. The order urged shelters “to use COVID-19 risk-mitigation practices in their operations.”
Rooms in the shelter contain at least five bunk beds, with 10 residents in each room. Every resident interviewed said the beds are not spread out, and no social distancing guidelines have been implemented.
Beltran described one case of staff punishing residents for COVID-19 outbreaks.
“A staff member came down with COVID, and they blamed the [women experiencing homelessness] using the bathrooms,” Beltran said, “and then they denied access to bathrooms.”
“I feel like these women carry the entire burden of society on their shoulders.” Beltran said. “There aren’t high representations of COVID-19 in the homeless populations, but I feel like they are being blamed for it … maybe that’s why the women are being treated differently.”
DHS introduced a new Pandemic Emergency Program for Highly Vulnerable Populations (PEP-V)in May. Sheltered or unsheltered people experiencing homelessness above the age of 55, or who are otherwise at high risk of complications due to COVID-19, may be transferred to these temporary locations for extended quarantine and treatment.
Unity Health Care is contracted by DHS to provide medical services to shelters like Harriet Tubman. They have been tasked with referring shelter residents to PEP-V sites.
Jones, Snow, and Thompson said they were not told about PEP-V, and later found out that staff had already picked women to transfer to the sites without informing all residents.
“[Staff] did not offer it to us. They took 15 people of their choosing to go into PEP-V,” Jones said. “Some of the girls found out and started asking. We’re on a waiting list. And what we were told [is] we’re still waiting … especially ones with certain lung conditions, we shouldn’t be waiting.”
As of Oct. 8, DHS reported only 11 new positive COVID-19 cases in shelters in the last 48 days. But Thompson and shelter resident Caroline Kennedy say they cannot be sure, as COVID-19 testing is not mandatory at the shelter.
“Look at us out here,” Thompson said on the day of deep cleaning, pointing toward dozens of women experiencing homelessness out on the lawn, sitting close to one another. “This is how we are everyday on the inside … and they don’t make it mandatory that people take the test!”
I’m at @CCADW‘s Harriet Tubman Women’s Shelter, where shelter residents have been kicked out for a deep cleaning procedure, to prepare it for hypothermia season. Dozens of residents have been out on the lawn since 8:30 a.m. #homelessness #DCHomelessCrisis pic.twitter.com/yooL68UUdY
— Athiyah Azeem (@AthiyahTA) September 22, 2020
Staff and Security Guard Abuse
All residents who talked to Street Sense Media say they are being abused by staff members and security guards.
“I haven’t been on meds for 20 years, now I’m back on meds,” Thompson said. “Because this place is terrible, I’m telling you…this is the worst place I have ever been in my life.”
Guards are personnel under Prince Security Services, contracted by DHS. At the moment, Prince Security and TCP are being sued for paying guards below minimum wage.
[Read more: While already in working at Harriet Tubman, Prince Security replaced the previous company used by Catholic Charities for the 801 East Men’s shelter in February after a resident was fatally stabbed]
On approximately Sept. 11, resident Monique Frederick was walking down a staircase when a staff member “ran up behind me, as if they were trying to push me down the stairs to the point that I had to stop,” she said. “I asked why are you on my heels like that?” Frederick said the conversation between her and the staff member was not productive, so she went back to her room. Then a shelter security guard came to her room and asked her to vacate her bunk.
“[The guard] said ‘Monique, you gotta get your stuff, and you gotta go,’” Frederick said. When Frederick went to the front desk to ask why, she was told she was being terminated from the shelter and that the police had been called “because they said I tried to put my hands on [the staff member.]”
Frederick requested the shelter show MPD footage from the security cameras, which would show she did not touch or push the staff member. She said the staff refused, stating they did not have access to the cameras. Frederick said she went back to her room, and MPD, the security guards, and the staff dropped the issue.
“I don’t feel safe. If this is the staff and the guard, and they did this one time, they’ll try it again,” Frederick said. She and other residents said staff members and shelter guards constantly threaten residents that if they do not abide by the shelter’s rules or restrictions, they could risk losing their bed.
“‘[We’ll] take your bed, take your bed, take your bed.’ It’s like they hold it over our head,” Frederick said. “It’s a daily threat, every day.”
Residents say staff members and guards constantly distance themselves from residents.
“The staff refers to the first floor as the ‘ghetto’,” Beltran, the Legal Clinic attorney, said. Several residents confirmed that the staff call the newly renovated second floor the ‘penthouse.’
“There seems to be an extreme amount of classism,” Beltran said. She brought the use of this language to the attention of a Catholic Charities staffer, who seemed immediately defensive.
“She said ‘Did you hear [Tubman staff] say that?’” Beltran said. “I was like, what do you mean did I hear them say that?” Beltran said questioning her and Harriet Tubman residents’ integrity like that was inappropriate and unprofessional, and it seemed like the staffer did not actually wish to resolve the issue.
“[Residents on the upper floor] get extra time on the TV,” Thompson described. She was careful to note there isn’t any preferential treatment of who gets beds on the upper floor, only more benefits for those who were lucky enough to claim a bed there.
Jones recalls an incident where a staff member pulled the fire alarm at midnight on Christmas day last year.
“As we went back in, I heard [a staff member] say…‘I get a kick out of waking them up in the middle of the night to have a fire drill,’” Jones recalled. “What type of cruel and inhumane person is that?”
Residents report being insulted by staff and security guards daily, called names behind their backs, and talked to like children.
“They talk about me like a dog,” Jones said. “‘She ugly, she fat, she sloppy.’ And this is the staff!” She remembers one former staff member who would intentionally cause strife between residents, picking and choosing which of them could receive treats like ice cream, “like we’re children.”
“I had one security guard tell me that if I don’t like the conditions, well I could go back to sleeping in my car,” Snow said.
“That’s not acceptable language,” Handerhan said.
Residents also reported seeing donations come into the shelter but rarely receiving them. On top of that, Jones, Thompson and Snow have seen staff rifle through and claim donations for themselves first.
“The other day, a donation came in: Bleach, toilet paper, Oodles of Noodles, food snacks, juices, oil. They don’t cook in here. So why did y’all accept cooking oil?” Snow said.
Jones described church volunteers attempting to donate clothes outside the shelter several weeks before the deep clean. She said the staff told the church group that residents could not take these clothes back into the building.
“They made them throw [the clothes] into the trash,” Jones said. “Mind you, a lot of these women don’t have clothes.”
“The way we receive donations has changed during [COVID-19,]” Chesney, the Catholic Charities executive, said. Safety regulations have tightened to the point that donations not vetted by the nonprofit’s Central Service Office cannot be brought in. “Truly with safety in mind, we can’t.”
Residents who wish to complain about the shelter staff and conditions can file grievances at the front desk of the shelter. But Thompson said she has filed two and Frederick said she has filed four. Both have yet to hear anything back.
Snow said she kept a diary of her everyday life, and what was going on in the shelter, but “that also disappeared.”
“The staff and the guards … they downgrade us,” said Baylor, the resident who recently completed her third SPDAT. “We need someone to put us up, but they’re putting us down.”
Chesney said she will look into all complaints brought up during the interview.
“This is serious. Never do we want a resident to feel unwelcome or uncared for,” Chesney said. She hopes residents will use the whistleblower hotline to directly send complaints to her office, or voice their concerns during the shelter’s monthly town hall meetings.
“I want to hear from them,” she said. “Their voices are certainly important to me and important to my team.”
Handerhan said DHS has increased cultural competency training in their shelters this year to help staff understand the struggles people experiencing homelessness have to endure.
“It’s intended to make sure we do more than just make sure people feel safe, but that people feel dignified and empowered while they’re there,” Handerhan said. “That’s really what the whole system should be about.”
For Baylor, the way staff members treat her and talk to her, and the constant delay in getting housed, has had a negative impact on her mental health. On the morning of the deep clean, she said she hadn’t slept in two days.
“When someone has been homeless since 2002,” Baylor said, “I’m ready to get up, get out of here!”
DHS Chief of Staff Larry Handerhan’s quote has been corrected to say “This year, we know it’s super disruptive.” The sentence previously said “destructive.”
Added a statement by United Planning Organization.