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The city has huge plans for the 180-acre St. Elizabeths East property. But will these plans include the homeless?

In a decade, District leaders hope to see a $2.5 billion “Innovation Hub,” complete with federal offices and technology enterprises rising on the grounds of the historic psychiatric hospital located on Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE.

The St Elizabeths East Redevelopment project, which is slated to take shape adjacent to the future home of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security headquarters, will require the restoration of some of the existing buildings at the hospital and the demolition of others.

One of the buildings scheduled to be razed is identified on maps and plans for the project simply as 81A. But homeless advocates call the building 801 East. It’s a year-round men’s emergency shelter with 380 beds, run by Catholic Charities.

At a July 2 hearing on a the project held by the D.C. City Council’s Committee of Economic Development, advocates for the shelter residents asked about future plans for homeless services on the St. Elizabeths site. They got no firm answers, but some information from officials.

Committee Chairwoman Muriel Bowser said she hoped a facility that would better serve the homeless would replace the current shelter.

“I don’t think we should settle for rebuilding homeless shelters, I think that we should make sure that we are finding building and creating and putting people in permanent supportive housing with services,” Bowser said.

Bowser then turned to Catherine Buell, the executive director of St. Elizabeths East Redevelopment for more details.

“What are the implications for the homeless population?” Bowser asked Buell.

Buell responded:

“Our master plan does contemplate the homeless shelter,” said Buell. “It will be relocated in what we are calling our FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) or Federal Use Parcel. We are working to establish a timeline with GSA (General Services Administration) and FEMA, but as of right now nothing has been set.”

When asked when the relocation would take place, Buell said, “In Phase 2. If we had our way Phase 2 would happen next year. We would eagerly move quickly if GSA and FEMA commit.”

Robert Warren, director of People for Fairness Coalition said he hoped that the homeless men of 801 East would be given opportunities to work on the construction project as it advances.

“I know that it was stated that when they were building Homeland Security that district residents would be able to obtain jobs during that construction,” Warren said. “From my knowledge, not one person who is actually a resident of 801 East, a homeless person or a jobless person was able to obtain a job right
across the street from where they are living at. I’m hoping that we won’t have the same thing that happened with the West campus with district residents not getting in these jobs.”

Contacted by this reporter after the hearing, Erik Salmi, a spokesman for the Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Washington said that Catholic Charities has not been involved in planning for the site so far but would raise the issue of the needs of the homeless as the project moves forward.

“At this early time in the process, we have not been part of any discussions surrounding the future of the St. Elizabeth’s space,” said Salmi. “We will be urging planners to consider the vulnerable, homeless residents receiving services and ensuring that they are not forgotten in this process.”