Protect and Preserve the Rights of D.C.’s Homeless
In May, the D.C. Council took important votes to move forward with the closure of the D.C. General homeless shelter, approving the construction of six smaller shelters in different parts of the city. These new shelter facilities are designed as short-term housing with wraparound services for families, and will be a dramatic improvement over the shoehorning of hundreds of families into a shuttered, dilapidated public hospital.
Since first coming into office, I have visited D.C. General and other shelters around the city. It quickly became clear that many of them are operating under the wrong model of warehousing people. They are overcrowded, poorly maintained and lacking the necessary services to help individuals or families experiencing homelessness get back on their feet. Replacing these outdated shelters with smaller, service-rich ones will go a long way toward making homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring.
In order to truly reach that goal, however, we must also implement systemic changes to the continuum of care for our homeless residents. Fortunately, that is happening under the leadership of Department of Human Services Director Laura Zeilinger. Director Zeilinger’s track record over the past year speaks volumes, as she is making significant structural changes within the agency and implementing smart policy reforms like year-round access to shelter for families and an improved prevention program. These changes are critical to implementation of the Homeward D.C. five-year strategic plan to address homelessness in our city, created by the Interagency Council on Homeless in consultation with the community.
To pay for this plan, the council enhanced the mayor’s current budget proposal to make an unprecedented investment in homeless services. Part of the investment over the next year will be more than $100 million to fund the necessary facilities to replace D.C. General.
While I applaud the mayor for putting forward a concrete plan to close D.C. General, her proposal relied on leasing property at sometimes exorbitant rates from private developers – leases that would expire in 10 to 30 years. I worked to identify capital funding during the budget process and reallocated it to allow the government to build on D.C.-owned land or acquire land from developers, rather than using expensive leases. This is expected to save us at least $165 million on the projects, while ensuring long term stability of the sites. One of the sites that we changed to D.C.-owned land was the proposed Ward 5 shelter, which many advocates had also opposed due to its environmental risks and isolation.
It is my hope that Mayor Bowser embraces the council’s changes and works with us and the community to close D.C. General as quickly as possible. We must meticulously track the effort to ensure that these new shelters provide positive and healthy environments and feature extensive wraparound services. We must remember that building the new shelters will not guarantee an end to family homelessness, because there are hundreds of homeless families remaining in hotel rooms. We must keep the pressure on to continue improving how we prevent homelessness. And we must build the housing that families can transition into after a brief stay in shelter while they get back on their feet. This means continuing our financial commitment to the Housing Production Trust Fund, local rent supplement vouchers, permanent supportive housing, rapid rehousing and more. We must make good on our commitment to transform the support system for individuals who are homeless, as well.
To me, these are critical human rights issues, and I am glad to see the city take the human rights of some of our most marginalized residents more seriously. I hope that in the coming years, D.C. will be seen as a model for preserving and protecting the rights of families and individuals experiencing homelessness by meeting their immediate and long term needs.