D.C. General is being torn down. New, small homeless shelters are opening. Is that better?


With the final phases of demolition this month, D.C. General — the old hospital and the notorious homeless shelter haunted by abuse, neglect and the lingering disappearance of a little girl named Relisha Rudd — is nearly gone.

Meanwhile, a couple of miles away, dozens of homeless families are checking out of the two tired hotels on a gritty stretch of New York Avenue NE that served as overflow shelters, where millions of tax dollars went to house and feed them in 323-square-foot rooms.

They are headed to brand new, smaller shelters with cool architecture or floor-to-ceiling windows. Some are headed to apartments.

And the statistics are looking better, too. This summer there are about 400 families in shelters compared with 461 this time last year, according to Dora Taylor-Lowe, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services and a tireless advocate for the city’s efforts to make shelters more humane. She said the closing of hotels is “a good thing.”

Not just yet. The improvements to shelter life are remarkable and laudable. But that doesn’t mean the solution to life beyond the shelter — permanent housing — is reached. And then there’s the pandemic, which has the potential to demolish these fragile victories.

“There are challenges ahead,” Tempestt Sullivan, 33, said this weekend as she helped her 7-year-old son, Joaquin, get ready for his fifth move in about three years next week.

She’s about to live through the second shutdown of a D.C. hotel shelter, but she refuses to declare victory.

Classes start soon for both of them. She’s a hospitality management student at the University of the District of Columbia; he’s going into second grade. Both will have to do all their classes on laptops because of the novel coronavirus.

When they leave the Days Inn on New York Avenue, the Sullivans will be allowed to bring just two bags each to their next stop, a dormitory-style studio where they may stay for 90 days. “I know this: This won’t be our last move,” Sullivan said.

The cyclical nature of family homelessness in D.C. — shelter, subsidized apartment, eviction, shelter — means that most of the solutions the city comes up with are bandages, not cures. The Sullivan family’s experience is typical of that cycle.

I met the mother and son just as the city went into pandemic shutdown in March, when she was trying to get her boy to burn off some energy running in a parking lot because all the playgrounds in the area were closed. They’ve spent the past five months doing a lot of walking, heading mostly to parks and open spaces. Anything to get out of that tiny room.

The first time they landed in a shelter was years ago, right after Sullivan tried to juggle work and college classes and fell behind on rent. After a stay in the city’s overflow hotel room, the city’s Rapid Rehousing program landed them in a decent apartment on 16th Street NE that had two bedrooms, a balcony and a kitchen.

“My son had his own room there,” she said. “It was the first time we had some space.”

That program eased her into payment, with about 60 percent of her work wages and student stipends going toward the apartment’s $2,906 monthly rent, and the city paying the remainder. But when the program subsidy ended 18 months later, she fell behind and was evicted within months, landing back in the hotel — where the city pays more than $3,000 a month to house a family, not including meals. That’s substantially more than what it costs to keep her in market-rate housing.

It’s a problem that the glossiest, most stylish temporary shelter can’t fix, though Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) is making good on her plan to create more humane places for families to live when they’re experiencing homelessness.

As promised, the D.C. General shelter has been shut down and Bowser’s administration is closing in on a goal to have smaller, newer family shelters in nearly every ward in the city. The buildings are beautiful and new, with WiFi and contemporary furniture. Six of seven have been opened.

The one that the Sullivans are moving into, the Aya on Delaware Avenue SW, has floor-to-ceiling windows and an Ikea showroom aesthetic. It’s a dorm-style situation, with shared bathrooms, kitchens and common spaces.

A clean and safe layover. But Sullivan is hungry for a plan that will help her stand on her own.

“Getting a job is no problem — my résumé is great,” she said. “But with my son not going into school, I can’t leave him alone to go work.

“That’s frustrating because I’ve always worked. Always stood on my own two feet,” she said. “But even when you’re working, there’s nothing you can afford in D.C. So people are just sitting around, waiting for placements. That can make people lazy. And I don’t want to be lazy.”

That’s the ongoing problem in a city with little affordable housing.

Essentially, the life rafts are really nice, but there’s no land. These families stay adrift.

But even more frustrating?

The fixes are in danger of being moot because of the virus.

With growing unemployment and the eventual lifting of eviction restrictions — Maryland ended its eviction moratorium last month, while Virginia’s runs until Sept. 7 — homelessness across the nation could jump by 40 to 45 percent, according to Columbia University economics professor Brendan O’Flaherty.

“This is unprecedented,” O’Flaherty wrote in a report on the state of homelessness in the United States. “No one living has seen an increase of 10 percent of unemployment in a month.”

It’s going to be November when Sullivan’s time in the new space runs out. “And then what?” she asked.

It’s a question the entire nation is going to face.

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