AYA Shelter new building architecture
New Short-term Family Housing Shelter

When D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser campaigned for her current position in 2014, on a promise that she would close the dilapidated D.C. General shelter, there was uncertainty about whether it would work out. 

Vincent Gray, who served as mayor from 2010-2014 prior to Bowser, had expressed the desire to accomplish the same feat while he was in office. Gray’s plan generated more questions than answers, though, and it never came to fruition before his term ended. 

Bowser chose to tackle the issue regardless, developing a strategy in conjunction with D.C. Council in 2016 and formally closing the converted hospital in October 2018.  

“It was a few years ago when our mayor made a decision to close D.C. General and to take a very different approach in how we try to help families that are experiencing homelessness,” Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen said at the ribbon-cutting. “It was a bold move, it was a strong move, and it was the right move.” 

Kitchen table with 4 chairs and microwave

New communal kitchen in Aya Shelter with modern furnishings

D.C. General had housed approximately 250 families. The Aya, located in Ward 6 on Delaware Avenue Southwest, can accommodate up to 50 families. It is the fifth of seven planned short-term family housing facilities constructed in D.C. General’s stead — The Kennedy opened in Ward 4 in September 2018; The Horizon opened in Ward 7 in October 2018; The Triumph opened in Ward 8 in November 2018; and The Sterling opened in Ward 5 in August 2019.

[Read more: The city’s next 5-year-plan to end homelessness provides more questions than answers] 

A low-barrier women’s shelter also opened in Ward 2 in 2016. The Ward 3 site is set to open in April and the Ward 1 site is scheduled to open in early 2021. 

A press release following The Aya’s unveiling said family homelessness in D.C. has been reduced by 45% since Homeward D.C.’s launch in 2016. According to the 2019 Point in Time count, 1,242 families were counted as homeless — a 12% decrease from 2018. 

“It turns out, that if you put people in environments where they can steady themselves, get the services that they need, not be tucked away in a corner … they, in fact, do steady themselves,” Bowser said at the ribbon-cutting.

[Read more: The first three DC General replacement shelters open] 

D.C. General had received countless complaints about poor conditions. Complaints described in a March 2015 Street Sense Media article included mice, cold water, and little heat. However, it was the abduction of then-8-year-old Relisha Rudd in 2014 that demanded national attention and prompted Bowser’s campaign promise.  

Rudd, a resident of D.C. General, was last seen with a worker at the shelter. The employee was later found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot, but Rudd’s fate remains a mystery. Advocacy organizations and the police continue to release updated approximations of what she might look like today. The most recent image was provided by The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children Community members gathered over the weekend to mark the anniversary of her disappearance, keep hope alive, and distribute copies of the photo.

[Read more: Missing Girl Highlights Vulnerability of Homeless Children] 

The Aya consists of seven color-coded floors with varying bed counts per space — some of which are designed for families of up to 10 or 11. Residents will begin moving into the space in March.

Two twin sized beds in a brightly lit room

Modern furnishing of a double room in Aya Shelter

The Ward 6 facility features bathrooms for every two families, no-cost laundry rooms, community rooms, a community health clinic, WiFi, and landline phones. In the rooms, amenities include storage space, armoires and mini-fridges. 

The Aya was unable to have outdoor play spaces because the area surrounding the building is public land. Instead, there are indoor/outdoor play areas on each floor that replicate an outdoor space. 

Areas such as those, in addition to commissioned art decorating the walls — among other things — create an environment that says, “We want to keep our neighbors here,” said D.C. Department of Human Services director Laura Zeilinger.

[Read more: With DC General closed, this organization is bringing playtime to children in overflow family shelters] 

“We know that everybody falls on hard times and everybody is worthy,” Zeilinger said. “And in our worst moments, we should walk into a place that says you are loved, you are cared about, we see your humanity and you are safe.” 

Zeilinger said that the on-site service provider will be CORE DC, which also operates The Horizon in Ward 7. The Horizon was originally serviced by Life Deeds, but the provider’s documentation was unable to be verified, leading to its termination.  

Tyrone Johnson, who attended the event because his cousin was involved in the construction, said he had “been here through the whole process” and was proud of the final product.

[Read more: Second DC General replacement shelter complete] 

“From start to finish, it’s a great job,” Johnson said. “I love the work, I love the building and can’t wait until the residents start coming in.”