- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 7, 2016

Count Ward 6 as one more slice of the city not thrilled by Mayor Muriel Bowser’s plan to open a homeless shelter to take in some of the residents now housed at the old D.C. General Hospital.

Residents here worry that the site of a proposed shelter abuts an active arts space and will be too tall and narrow to safely navigate for children if there is an emergency.

“If a shelter were built at the proposed location, it would be a bad deal for the District and it would not serve families well,” said Stacy Cloyd, a member of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission in the area where the shelter is proposed. “If a shelter is built anywhere in ANC 6D, its residents will be our constituents and we would expect them to have safe and supportive housing.”

Ms. Cloyd laid out several challenges to building a family shelter on the site at 700 Delaware Ave. SW, not least of which is that the new building will be on the same property as the Blind Whino art space, which works out of the historic Friendship Baptist Church and currently hosts art workshops. The space is also rented out for private events such as charity galas and parties.

“These are often not family-focused events — they go until late at night, they have amplified music, serve alcohol,” Ms. Cloyd told The Washington Times.

She was careful to not discount having the Blind Whino in her neighborhood, saying the community welcomes both the arts space and a homeless shelter — just not on the same property.

“There’s a place for such a venue in a vibrant, artistic, neighborhood like Southwest. And there’s a place in Ward 6 for a family homeless shelter. I am just not sure that either of them works well if they are literally attached,” Ms. Cloyd said.

The proposed shelter in Ward 6, which includes the Navy Yard, Capitol Hill and the booming NoMa neighborhood in its borders, would house up to 50 families. It is part of an ambitious $22 million-a-year initiative developed by the mayor to close the run-down 285-room homeless facility at the D.C. General and transfer families into new shelters in seven of the District’s eight wards.

But the Bowser administration has encountered steady resistance to 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 is surveying the prospects at each of the proposed sites.

The Friendship Baptist Church, which sits directly adjacent to the homeless shelter site, was designed by James A. Boyce in 1886 and was deemed a historic building in September 2004, according to the National Registry of Historic Places.

The site will be developed by Steve Tanner under the 700 Delaware Avenue LLC banner. It will be leased to the city for 25 years including renewals, with a compounding annual rent increase of 3 percent.

The site will cost the District on average about $3.2 million per year, with the average monthly unit cost of $5,469. The total lease over 25 years will cost the city more than $82 million. The shelter site will include a playground and recreation space as well as a computer lab for residents and ongoing support services for families.

The site does provide many of the amenities Ms. Bowser has promised, including access to bus lines, the Waterfront Metro station, and a grocery store and pharmacy nearby.

Ian Callender, one of the co-founders of Blind Whino, told The Washington Times that the organization is “fully open” to support anything that helps others, but he didn’t say whether the Blind Whino’s events would change when the shelter is constructed.

Bad choice

Andy Litsky, an ANC commissioner in a neighboring jurisdiction, echoed Ms. Cloyd’s concern, saying that putting a homeless shelter next to a space where evening arts events are being staged, events that may include alcohol, would be a bad choice.

“A lot of the folks in the community love [Blind Whino]. It’s a very avant-garde space and it’s great to have that here in the neighborhood,” Mr. Litsky said.

Council member Charles Allen, Ward 6 Democrat, was unavailable for comment. He did not attend a Wednesday night community meeting about the shelter site, according to several residents who attended the meeting.

But Michael Czin, Ms. Bowser’s chief spokesman, said residents don’t have anything to worry about because Blind Whino will be changing its programs to accommodate its neighbors in the shelters.

“We have heard concerns from residents regarding the current use. When the short-term family housing facility comes online, the Blind Whino space will transition to a cultural arts and events space that will complement the new usage for the site,” Mr. Czin said.

Ms. Cloyd also chided Ms. Bowser for not involving ANCs in the process for selecting the Ward 6 site.

“There was no public input into the location of the Ward 6 shelter. I learned about it the night before it was announced,” Ms. Cloyd said. “And that’s unfortunate, because ANC commissioners and others in the community could have highlighted problems with the proposed site and suggested alternate locations in our neighborhood.”

At a March 17 D.C. Council hearing on the plan, Mr. Litsky said the opposition to the proposed site isn’t about residents rejecting a homeless shelter in Ward 6, but rather about making sure the shelter is the right place for both residents and those residing in the shelter.

“You know, the residents of the neighborhoods selected for the location of the shelters are not NIMBYs,” he said. “We are concerned though that a rushed review of this mammoth and costly project is a huge disservice to the public purse but most importantly to the interests of the residents who need to occupy these temporary residences.”

And though Mr. Czin did not speak directly to why ANCs weren’t consulted when sites were being considered, he did say the request for proposals for the site was open for more than a year and Ms. Bowser selected the site based on those responses.

“We received three responses from Ward 6, and two were not suitable for logistics reasons,” he said.

Ms. Bowser did hold a round of community meetings after she announced the plan in February. She is also holding a string of community meetings in each ward this week and next to discuss the design of each shelter.

Residents in Ward 6 say safety is another concern. The shelter will be a narrow, seven-story structure with one elevator and Mr. Litsky says that means it will be difficult for families to get in and out of the building when they need to get children to school or get groceries. It could also present a problem if there’s a fire.

“There are a lot of families and a lot of need to move up and down the seven stories,” he said.

Mr. Litsky said this all could have been avoided and can still be avoided if the process is slowed down.

“Such a pause for reflection and review may very well result in a better crafted, more effective outcome, with resources that are perhaps more properly applied to the solutions of both temporary and permanent housing,” he said. “There may be even new lessons learned through dialogue.”

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