- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 16, 2016

One of the D.C.’s wealthiest jurisdictions, Ward 3, is known for its tony residences, luxurious embassies and upscale restaurants — including one small neighborhood that encompasses about 50 percent of the ward’s services for homeless families.

It is here, in Massachusetts Heights, where D.C. officials want to establish a shelter, thereby concentrating 80 percent of Ward 3’s homeless services in the community.

Residents say that is too much.

“Our neighborhood has gotten a lot of grief for not wanting homeless in our backyard, but that’s not true,” said Anita Crabtree, who lives directly behind the proposed shelter site. “We already shelter the homeless here.”

Malia Brink said residents want to support the city’s overall plan to house the homeless, but without any public input, it is tough to see how the shelter would work in the community.

“When this first arose, we went to the [Advisory Neighborhood Commission] to say, ‘Please don’t rush. We know everyone wants to get behind this plan, but take in the site and let us collect our thoughts,’” said Ms. Brink, who also lives in Massachusetts Heights.

The site of the proposed shelter, at 2619 Wisconsin Ave. NW, would house 38 families. It is part of a $22 million-a-year initiative developed by Mayor Muriel Bowser to close the decrepit 285-room homeless facility at the former D.C. General Hospital in Southeast and transfer families into new shelters in all eight wards.

But the Bowser administration has encountered resistance to and criticism of the plan, which has been presented to residents as a fait accompli without any public input or information about how the sites were chosen and why. The Washington Times will examine each of the proposed sites.

On Thursday, the D.C. Council will hold a public hearing on the homeless shelter plan. More than 90 people have signed onto the witness list to speak their mind at the forum. Many of those on the witness list are residents not representing any organizations or other private interests.

“It was sprung on people by the mayor: ‘Take it or leave it. There will be no community input,’” Ms. Crabtree said of the city’s homeless plan. “It was a done deal. At a minimum, the ANCs should have been involved.”

ANC Commissioner Catherine May represents the area.

“The overall program and this project in particular were designed out of public view,” Ms. May said. “Yet despite its cost and the apparent complexity, it is on track to be approved by our elected representative on the council without any significant examination.”

Council member Mary M. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, declined to comment, saying she wanted to wait until after the hearing.

Ms. Bowser’s communication director, Michael Czin, said the mayor and other city officials have attended dozens of community meetings around the District.

“Community engagement is a bedrock of this administration, and the mayor has been vocal about her plan to close D.C. General and replace it with smaller, dignified community-based temporary housing,” Mr. Czin said.

‘How you make it work’

Massachusetts Heights is nestled in a small triangle bordered by Wisconsin Avenue to the west, Massachusetts Avenue to the east and the Naval Observatory to the south. It sits about a half-mile south of Washington National Cathedral.

A single-family home currently stands on the proposed shelter site alongside two adjacent lots zoned for single-family homes. The residence will be razed to make way for a 35,000-square-foot, three-story building that will fill all three lots.

Construction is set to start in February, and homeless families will move in May 2018. The site will be leased to the city by MED Developers LLC for an estimated $3,500 per unit, per month — or as much as $2.1 million a year.

MED Developers did not respond to emails seeking comment.

The Massachusetts Heights neighborhood is zoned almost exclusively for single-family homes, save for a hotel and a small condominium. Young families and older couples occupy most of the neighborhood’s 140 homes, some of which cost millions of dollars.

The homeless facility is to house at least 38 families, but a letter of intent between the city and the developer says the shelter must contain at least 50 “sleeping rooms.”

Residents say the massive, three-story building will hardly blend in with the stately homes that dot the area.

But when the plan was announced in February, Ms. Cheh expressed resounding support and said the proposed facility would be a good fit for the neighborhood.

“From the details of the plan released so far and more to be delivered, it is evident to me that this is a well-conceived strategy — one that includes on-site wraparound services and temporary housing that is well-designed, safe and crafted to fit into the community,” the Ward 3 council member said.

Public transportation near the site consists solely of a bus stop on either side of well-traveled Wisconsin Avenue, on which the Metrobus 30, 31 and 33 operate. The buses run about every 15 minutes during rush hour, but at other times the wait can be up to 45 minutes, according to Metro schedules.

“The site is on bus lines, but depending on where you have to get, it can be really unreliable,” Ms. Crabtree said. “I say that with experience as a public transportation rider.”

Reaching the nearest subway stops at Cleveland Park and Woodley Park would require lengthy walks along busy streets.

Residential development prevails around the proposed shelter site, which sits about a half-mile from Washington National Cathedral and the Naval Observatory, home of the vice president. The closest grocery stores are a Safeway about a mile south on Wisconsin Avenue and a Giant about a mile in the other direction.

Massachusetts Heights residents emphasize that they do not oppose homeless services in their neighborhood, noting that they have helped set up two shelters that serve the area.

About 25 years ago, the community spearheaded an effort to find places to shelter homeless people, especially during the District’s brutal winters. The sites chosen still operate as a seven-bed permanent men’s shelter and a 25-bed hypothermia shelter for women.

“As a percentage of its residents, [Massachusetts Heights] hosts more homeless individuals than any other neighborhood in Ward 3. Indeed, if the rest of Ward 3 neighborhoods were as welcoming to the homeless as [Massachusetts Heights], there would already be roughly 3,500 shelter beds in Ward 3,” according to a website that community residents created.

Ms. Crabtree said she fully supports closing the dilapidated D.C. General shelter but added that linking its closure to the all-or-nothing site plan presented by city officials puts residents in a bind.

“It’s unfair that the mayor is asking for this to go through as a package and not let each site be assessed on own merits,” she said. “But closing D.C. General is inextricably linked with these sites.”

Ms. Brink said the mayor’s plan, “created without the input of ANCs or residents and lacking completely in financial responsibility, is a potential disaster. Every single aspect was designed without the neighborhood in mind at all. We could have told them, ‘This is how you make it work.’”

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