April 14, 2016 at 7:06 pm EDT | by Mark Lee
Have we become hapless on helping the homeless?
Muriel Bowser, gay news, Washington Blade, homelessness

Mayor Muriel Bowser is moving forward with plans to shutter D.C. General Hospital as a shelter for homeless families. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

D.C.’s once trail-blazing requirement that the city provide emergency overnight shelter during cold weather nights to those needing and requesting it might now be more an obstacle to helping the homeless from a bigger-picture perspective.

You would have to turn over a lot of rocks to find anyone underneath who thinks that the social service disaster known as the city government’s family shelter at the old D.C. General Hospital was anything other than a very expensive embarrassment — or that officials shouldn’t shut it down after creating a better alternative.

Mayor Muriel Bowser, to her credit, made that objective a signature activity of her administration immediately after taking office a little over a year ago. The plan was to shutter D.C. General and open multiple smaller facilities scattered throughout the city to provide better service delivery in a more conducive setting.

Bowser recently unveiled her plan and the chosen sites nearly two months ago. Each of the eight political wards would host a small facility, with no site providing shelter for more than 50 families, involving the development of seven new shelters in addition to one already designated for midtown’s Ward 2. In fact, what is being proposed is no longer referred to as “shelter” but “temporary housing” — as if a public relations firm thought nomenclature would mitigate the inevitable objections among some living in close proximity.

Cue the naysayers and critics.

The proposal is now sinking in quicksand, threatening implementation — certainly on an expeditious timetable. Slick NIMBY online video campaigns have been launched, battles are being waged, and public debate fills the air.

There are reasons to be wary. If nothing else, the jaw-dropping cost of the current service provision at D.C. General is now exceeded by the face-palming price tag for the replacement plan. Rather than merely outrageous monthly costs per family of approximately $4,600 for dormitory accommodations, the price tag has leapt to an astounding figure of $6,500 or more per month for nicer dormitory digs.

Rent me an expansive luxury penthouse apartment with accompanying amenities for that price and I’d be a very happy resident.

We’re talking a $660 million taxpayer cost over 30 years, to replace the existing shelter for 270 families, and for leased properties in five of the seven wards given that only two of the sites, in Wards 7 and 8, utilize city-owned land. And after a couple decades or slightly more, these leases all expire, returning the sites to the owners.

This being Washington, accusations are being hurled that the mayor is “paying off” campaign contributors with too-pricey deals to acquire land and construct buildings. First find me a developer who isn’t engaged in supporting political candidates and then we’ll talk.

Plus that ol’ community curse that no one area can become a “dumping ground” for “less-than-desirable” city functions, no matter how abundant or affordable the available land or buildings, is going to jack up the price when you’re searching for something in pricier and densely filled-to-the-gills parts of town. Any gay realtor can tell you that.

The District government has also hit its allowed debt limit, precluding the ability to buy and build. The credit card for city leaders has a borrowing cap — and they’ve now maxed that plastic out.

But by focusing solely on the provision of emergency shelter, instead of what the homeless really need, we’re spending a whopping amount of public funds to not solve the real issue.

Have we become hapless on helping the homeless?

Why not do what other cities are successfully engendering through innovative private sector and faith-based collaborations, including the use of public funds, and construct, you know, actual housing for the homeless?

Maybe some government-financed private development would bring down the per-dorm-room cost below that of a mortgage for a more-than-million-dollar home.

If we’re going to spend this much money, shouldn’t actual housing be the actual goal, and the end result?

Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at OurBusinessMatters@gmail.com.

2 Comments
  • Sorry I have to take issue with the author on the slick NIMBY section and giving a pass on the payoffs to developers.

    1) When people purchase property, zoning laws are what protect their investments and offer stability to the city, for example protecting residential areas from more affluent corporations buying up residentially zoned land and building businesses.
    Mayor Bowser has unilaterally decided to suspend all the rules and put the shelters wherever city selected realtors deemed appropriate sites to choose from in a closed process.
    2) The inexcusable “eye-popping” costs according to the city council are going to FreshPAC contributors exclusively. You can say that developers contribute to politicians as part of doing business but c’mon in Ward 1 Bowser is buying her long time allies Suman and Nicky Sorg a 14 Million dollar building, paying for all services in that building, then leasing the land under the building for $770,000 per year just for the privilege of using it as a shelter.

    What about the NIMBYs in Ward 5 trying to protect the homeless population from being housed under a railroad track next to a bus maintenance facility and strip clubs. The location meets no other criteria (access to stores, transportation, and recreation) other than political patronage.

    Yes city dwellers are used to a degree of cronyism to get some things done and we’ve all become a little cynical but this deal is really a question of can the administration get away with anything over extremely valid citizen objections.

    Last year the administration closed 15 public schools, apparently none of them can be repurposed as shelters despite having adequate recreation, room, and dining facilities and offices for transitional services yet we are to believe that the only solutions for sheltering the homeless is buying new buildings for campaign donors, give me a break.

  • Maybe if we had rent control again there wouldn’t be so many homeless people in a country that likes to pride itself as having a better standard of living than most!

    Since politicians are not committed to providing homes to people who need them and will allow banks and others to throw people out of their homes that can’t meet payments only to turn around and sell them for nothing that maybe the only alternative.

    The cost of housing whether renting or buying is getting ridiculous everywhere and shows no sign of ever reversing in favor of people with lower incomes. You have to make six figures a year it seems to have any hope of doing nothing more than paying for housing and eating and little else including saving for retirement assuming you can meet those needs! Something has got to give!

    American dream? Really? More like a pipe dream these days.

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