CCNV building
Photo by Street Sense

Three decades ago, advocate Mitch Snyder helped raise awareness about Washington’s growing homeless crisis, organizing sit-ins and hunger strikes that were the beginning of something much larger.

In 1983, after a series of dramatic protests, the old college building that would become the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV), or Federal City Shelter, was turned over to the protesters. After four years of renovations, the shelter was considered a model for the nation, offering help to those experiencing extreme poverty. At 425 2nd Street NW, homeless individuals found a place of stability. CCNV’s innovations also raised the standard for homeless services. After the shelter opened, D.C. had to start treating its homeless residents better.

After serving the homeless for 30 years, homeless advocates say it is time to think about the future of CCNV.

At a June 27 hearing called by D.C. City Council member Jim Graham, witnesses had the chance to air their thoughts on the facility, which currently houses over 1,300 men and women. They were also anxious to talk about a possible renovation or new building at the site that could give new life to homeless services in the city.

Eric Sheptock, chairman of the homeless advocacy group Shelter Housing and Respectful Change (SHARC) raised the concern that a 30-year agreement that requires the District to use the property for the homeless will expire in July 2016. He spoke of the importance of developing a future plan that would offer improved homeless services on the site.

“The city’s response to the homeless has been poor,” said Sheptock. “The project is an opportunity to reverse the effects of these failures,” he said, “We need to show people that we want to end homelessness, we’re in it to win it.”

Will Merrifield, a lawyer with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said that in considering uses for the property, the city should keep the human potential and human rights of homeless people in mind.

“Many of the people I describe have been marginalized,” said Merrifield. “Housing is an absolute human right. It’s an affordable housing issue, it’s a living wage issue.”

Graham, who chairs the city council’s human services committee, spoke in support of continuing to serve the homeless at the site, in spite of development pressures in the area near Union Station.

“We can do things here to help everybody,” he said.

Rico Harris, executive director of CCNV and an unpaid volunteer and shelter resident, said shelter services are needed in this city.

“We have been trying to keep Mitch Snyder’s dream going,” Harris said.

“We feel like we are on the front lines.” He also said that services should be improved. “I think it’s very important that you do something about 1,300 people, I think it’s paramount that you remember we are talking about 1,300 lives.”

Julia Lightfoot, executive director of Clean and Sober Streets, a recovery program also housed at CCNV, spoke of the potential of the shelter’s residents.

“There is no such thing as they can’t succeed,” referring to the residents she sees daily. “Nobody wants to live in an alley. Our task becomes to provide an environment where that person can succeed, so whatever we decide, we must include structure, safety, and an expectation that they can succeed,” she said.

Henry Pierce, who also works for Clean and Sober Streets, said, “I been on the streets, been in abandoned buildings, I didn’t consider myself homeless. I’ve seen thousands of men and women come through and be successful.” He spoke with gratitude of the help he received at CCNV. “It’s not about substance abuse treatment, it is about rehabilitation and the city afforded a way for us to do that, a lot of people got help in that building.”