Central Union Mission
Sarah Fleischman

By this time next year, the venerable Central Union Mission, long a refuge for homeless men, may itself be homeless.

The 126-year-old mission sold its facility at R and 14th Street NW five years ago for $7 million and must leave the building by Oct. 1, 2012. Yet work on the shelter’s future home, the historic Gales School near Union Station, is not scheduled to be completed until June 2013.

“We’re not looking forward to being the homeless homeless shelter,” said David Treadwell, the executive director of the mission.

Treadwell says the mission is working with the District of Columbia to locate vacant space to temporarily house the mission’s guests, but the quest is not a simple one. Central Union mission needs space somewhere that will accommodate 140 beds and a kitchen.

Allen Babin, who has been coming to the mission for 13 months, said he hopes to have his own home by the winter of 2012. He is wary of following the shelter to a new location. It would not feel familiar to him.

“This is my neighborhood,” Babin said. “I’ve been here 10 years.”

On the other hand, Vernell Jones said he plans to stay with the mission wherever it goes during the next 18 months in order to complete his parole requirements.

“Wherever they move will be fine,” Jones said. “They work well with the people and work for the people.” But the corner of R and 14th just won’t be the same without the shelter, he added. “It will be missed in this neighborhood.”

Treadwell says the new location, near the city’s train and bus stations, will be a positive move.

“People in desperate situations tend to congregate in the downtown area,” Treadwell said.

Architectural drawings of the new shelter show a bright, state-of-the-art facility, very different from the old location, with its antiquated kitchen and long rows of bunks. The dormitory at the new shelter will include partitions that will grant the residents some privacy. New dining and exercise areas, dental and medical offices, a lawyer’s office, meeting rooms and a day room will complete the project.

But it has been a long and complex journey to get this far.

It was back in 2006 that Central Union Mission first announced its decision to move from the rapidly gentrifying U Street corridor. Originally, the plan was to build a new shelter on Georgia Avenue, but the following year, opposition from the Petworth and Columbia Heights neighborhoods put a stop to that idea. The mission then began exploring the use of the city-owned Gales School as an alternative site, but that plan also stalled, in part because the American Civil Liberties Union, joined by others, sued.

In the lawsuit, which was eventually dropped, the ACLU asserted that a deal resulting in city support for the mission would violate the constitutional principle of separation of church and state, because the mission has a history of requiring men to participate in religious services in return for help. The shelter, envisioned from its Civil War-era beginnings as a gospel rescue mission for needy and homeless people, still holds daily prayer services and Bible classes. But the men also have the option of spending that time in quiet contemplation, and attendance at worship has not been required since 2007, Treadwell said.

Central Union mission will lease the Gales School property from the District of Columbia for $1 per year for 45 years with a 25-year extension.The building is currently a hollow shell. Before any construction is done, the work must be approved as meeting historical preservation requirements.

With some battles behind him and others still lying ahead, Treadwell’s outlook is positive. He remains excited about the mission’s future home.

“It is extremely difficult to locate a shelter in a city, and this location is believably heaven-sent,” Treadwell said. “This is no accident.”