D.C. Completes Ward 1 Family Homeless Shelter, Capping Years-Long Effort The completion of the city's seven new family shelters was a project five years in the making, delayed in some cases by neighborhood opposition.
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D.C. Completes Ward 1 Family Homeless Shelter, Capping Years-Long Effort

A bedroom at the Terrell, the city's new shelter for families in Ward 1. Jenny Gathright/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Jenny Gathright/WAMU/DCist

The District has completed construction of a new shelter in Ward 1 for families experiencing homelessness, marking the end of a years-long process to build several small family shelters across the city. The city expects residents to begin moving in as early as March.

The shelter is named the Terrell after Mary Church Terrell, the prominent civil rights and suffrage activist who taught at D.C.'s M Street School, the country's first African American public high school. It will provide temporary housing for 35 families experiencing homelessness. And it will include 15 units of permanent supportive housing for seniors, which will provide them apartments along with wraparound social services like a case manager and counseling.

Department of Human Services Director Laura Zeilinger says everything about the facility, from its size to its design, indicates a stark departure from the days of the D.C. General shelter, where families lived in overcrowded and unsafe conditions for years until it closed in 2018. At the new, smaller shelters across the city that were built to replace D.C. General, Zeilinger said families are successfully transitioning to housing, in most cases within three months of entering the shelter.

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"People need to not be hypervigilant and in a state of trauma and tunneling to be able to really focus on their goals," said Zeilinger. "Creating that space for families makes all the difference in getting there. That, and the investments in programs that support their housing and the services at these sites."

At a walk-through of the facility on Wednesday, Zeilinger called the facility, "beautiful, dignified" and "bright."

The temporary apartments for families include kitchens of their own, large windows, and new appliances. (The shelter also includes private bathrooms, which were a subject of debate as the city began planning replacement shelters for D.C. General.) There are community rooms with games and books. There's a playground in the courtyard. And it's located next to the Rita Bright Family and Youth Center, which will give families the opportunity to participate in programming there. But as the shelter opens, Zeilinger said, some operations will have to adjust because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

A dining room in a family apartment at the Terrell, the city's new family shelter in Ward 1. Jenny Gathright/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Jenny Gathright/WAMU/DCist

Case managers, Zeilinger said, will still work with families over the phone and video calls, and will come on-site "when needed." She added that the facility is currently limiting in-person time with case workers to protect everyone's health and safety.

Community rooms will also be available to residents, though operations will likely be modified to allow for proper distancing.

The completion of the city's seven new family shelters was a project five years in the making. Poor conditions at D.C. General were thrust into the spotlight after 8-year-old Relisha Rudd went missing from the shelter in 2014. And in February 2016, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser first announced the plan to replace D.C. General in Southeast with smaller shelters spread out across the District. There was no replacement shelter built in Ward 2, and the Ward 1 shelter is not technically a replacement shelter either; it was approved in an omnibus bill that authorized construction of the other family shelters, but it was built to replace a facility on Spring Road NW in Columbia Heights.

Bowser initially said the city could accomplish the plan by 2018—but the plan to build new shelters across the city hit snags along the way, in part because several shelters, including the one built in Ward 1, faced opposition from neighbors. In Ward 3 and Ward 5, some residents also organized unsuccessful lawsuits against shelter locations.

But one by one, the shelters opened across the city: first in Ward 4, followed by Wards 7, 8, 5, 6, and most recently, the Ward 3 shelter, which opened last spring. The city also opened a shelter for women experiencing homelessness in Ward 2 in 2016, but it shut down last year because of maintenance issues; it won't reopen until at least 2022.

Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, who chairs the council's committee on human services, acknowledged the hurdles that neighborhood opposition had created.

"A lot of times when folks say that they support things like affordable housing or housing homeless families in their neighborhoods, when it comes down to it, the housing being proximate to their own can often cause them to push back on it," said Nadeau.

Nadeau said she could remember one particularly tense community meeting as the project kicked off, where officials fielded concerned questions from residents about the plans. The city couldn't reach a deal for its original site and ultimately had to relocate to a city-owned plot of land. At the groundbreaking for the shelter, located at 14th and Clifton Streets Northwest, a small group of neighbors came out to protest and interrupted the ceremony with their shouts of "don't block us in."

But in the end, Nadeau said, she was proud of the community engagement process and the facility that it produced. She thinks there is a lesson that can translate more broadly to the government's goals of building more affordable housing.

"When it comes to building more affordable housing, the District of Columbia and those of us who care about it will have to continue to stand up for it. And that involves not just people in government, but neighbors, too," said Nadeau.

A playground sits in the courtyard of the new family shelter in Ward 1. Jenny Gathright/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Jenny Gathright/WAMU/DCist

Officials say the new, smaller shelters offer better facilities and more access to caseworkers for the families who stay there. And they say they are part of the reason the city has been able to drive down family homelessness by 85% since January 2016. By the city's count, more than 1400 families were experiencing homelessness at that time; now, Zeilinger said, that number is 204.

Advocates for those experiencing homelessness, however, say the city's official numbers don't tell the full story: many families who double up in crowded conditions aren't technically counted as "homeless." Moreover, they say the city's "rapid rehousing" program, which provides about a year of rental assistance, creates a burdensome financial "cliff" that ends up cycling families back into homelessness.

"Many people are in a precarious situation," Zeilinger acknowledged on Wednesday. "We're not done. We now have a shelter system... that we can sustain without having to be in spaces like D.C. General or overflow motels. And we know there's more work to do for people to then be able to sustain housing in the long run."

Part of that work, Zeilinger said, has to do with the broader need for affordable housing and jobs — work that goes beyond DHS's jurisdiction. Zeilinger also said that during the public health emergency, DHS has not taken away anyone's subsidy for rapid rehousing — which typically lasts for one or two years before families are expected to pay full rent. City officials also recognize that while they have made improvements with family homelessness, the number of single adults experiencing homelessness in the city continues to rise.

Addressing that pattern, Zeilinger said, will be one of her department's next major priorities — both with work to scale up the city's permanent supportive housing programs and with renovations of adult shelters. The city is replacing the 801 East shelter with a new facility on the St. Elizabeths campus in Southeast D.C and is working on plans to replace the Harriett Tubman shelter for women, which is located on the D.C. General campus.

"What the experience in shelter looks like matters," Zeilinger said. "We look forward to there being a series of changes with our single adult sites."

This story was updated with additional context about initial planning for family shelters.

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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