By Marissa Mizroch
On July 10th, in an unassuming room in the Wilson Building, Councilmember Jim Graham and the Committee on Human Services gathered together to hold a hearing that would help determine the future of the D.C. General homeless shelter.
“There is going to be a legacy here in the future,” Councilmember and Chairman of the Committee Graham said. “We aren’t caring for these children as we ought to. This is not going to pass.”
The former hospital closed down in 2001, only to be converted into a homeless shelter in 2007. The emergency shelter has come under fire in the previous months for unsafe conditions, pest problems, insufficient facilities, and employees preying on the residents. The shelter was thrust into the spotlight after a resident, 8-year-old Relisha Rudd, went missing in March. Rudd has yet to be found and is now presumed dead.
“It is a disgrace to this city,” said Yvette Cade, of the conditions at D.C. General. Cade, who is not a resident of D.C. General but has connections to the shelter, was one of those who volunteered to testify at the hearing. “There has to be something we can do.”
The future of the shelter remains uncertain. On June 17, Councilmember Graham introduced “Sense of the Council for Closing DC General Shelter
Resolution of 2014”, which is currently under council review after the hearing July 10. The resolution states that D.C General should be closed, but only there is a sufficient amount of alternative options for housing the homeless of D.C., among other requirements.
At the hearing on July 10, councilmembers heard from residents of the shelter, members of the mayor’s office, and other official witnesses responsible for policy making in regards to the homeless population of D.C
“I have a lot of health issues that have not been accommodated. They kept saying they were meeting my accommodations, they weren’t,” Naila Goodwin-Early, a resident of the shelter testified.
“The bread…was moldy, that was my food on my dietary tray.”
Goodwin-Early testified to the conditions of shelter facilities, including pipes bursting and lack of areas for children to safely play. The former hospital is nestled between a methadone clinic and a STD clinic.
“There is nothing for these kids to do. They are just sitting there, staring at the walls. And that is sad.” Goodwin-Early testified.
The poor living conditions were a heavily discussed topic throughout the hearing, as was the rapid re-housing program. If a family decides to participate in rapid re-housing, they are responsible for finding their own permanent residence, which the government will then pay for, up to one year.
“I have been offered rapid re-housing, but I don’t feel that is affordable on a TANF budget,” testified Shawnikka Jackson, an expectant mother who also has a 3-year-old daughter. Jackson has been at D.C General for close to 4 months. “I didn’t want to put myself in a position where I would be struggling, or be put back into the shelter after the year.”
Jackson was questioned about her decision to use D.C. General as a long-term plan, despite her testimony of sub-standard living conditions. Despite the challenges and uncertain future facing D.C General, it still remains a better alternative.
“If D.C General were to shut down today or tomorrow,” said Jackson. “Me and my daughter would be sleeping on the street.
Also testifying at the hearing was Deborah Carroll, Interim Director of the Department of Human Services, who spoke about the “The 500 Families. 100 Days. Quality DC Housing Now” campaign. The program began with Mayor Vincent Gray’s promise to move 500 families out of shelters by June, a goal that was not accomplished. As of July 9, only 187 families had been moved into apartments.
“Our goal is to help these families move into a much more stable living environment, “said Carroll. “Being able to work, get their education. We’ll support them.”
Carroll defended the time limits set the government sets on the rent-free apartments, which has caused criticism due to many families being unable to pay rent once the government ends the aid.
“What we’re finding is that customers get…complacent. The way the rapid re-housing program is set up is to support families and reevaluate every 3 months so we can keep that drive, that momentum going,” She said. “The only ones who fail are the ones who aren’t doing anything at all. If they are compliant with the plan, if they are working towards the goals, we continue to assist them.”
Expectant mother Shawnikka Jackson, testified that she did not want to appear ungrateful for the shelter that has been provided to her and her growing family at D.C. General. But despite the shelter currently being her best option, she still chooses to fight for a more positive future for D.C. General.
“It is very depressing to be going through homelessness with no help. I don’t want to turn to drugs or alcohol, or even worse, suicide,” said Jackson. “I wanted to thank everyone who has assisted me while being homeless, but I am just asking for a better housing environment so I can accomplish my goals for a better future for me and my children.”