- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 17, 2016

D.C. residents chided Mayor Muriel Bowser on Thursday for a lack of transparency in her plan to relocate homeless families to shelters in each ward, as some lawmakers retreated from their resounding praise of the plan.

“We need to make sure all members of homeless community find the right places to shelter,” Melissa Rohan of Ward 6 said at a D.C. Council public hearing on the homeless plan. “We need to go further in protecting children. What’s good for protecting our most vulnerable families is good for the rest of the community.”

Much of the upset over the plan appeared rooted in the fact that residents had no say in selecting the shelter sites and have not been told why those sites were chosen instead of other locations. They said they know their neighborhoods and should have been called upon to consult on the locations, not only for the good of the residents but also the families who would be sheltered there.

The $22 million-a-year initiative developed by Ms. Bowser calls for closing the dilapidated 285-room homeless facility at the former D.C. General Hospital in Southeast and transferring families into new shelters in seven of the city’s eight wards. Ward 2 is exempt because it recently opened a 200-bed women’s shelter.

The vast majority of residents at the hearing said they supported closing D.C. General and setting up small shelters around the District, they just wished they had been part of the site-selection process.

Ward 5 residents have been the most vocal in their opposition. The proposed shelter site at 2266 25th Place NE is in an industrial area within walking distance of two nightclubs, a strip club and a Metrobus maintenance facility, but with little access to amenities like grocery stores and public transportation.

SEE ALSO: D.C. homeless families decrease, still over 1,000

The opposition mounted at Thursday’s hearing, for which more than 90 people had signed onto the witness list to speak their mind.

“We want for them to be part of a community. They aren’t throwaways,” said Regina James, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 5.

Council member Kenyan McDuffie, Ward 5 Democrat, continued his opposition to the site in his jurisdiction. He was the only council member to challenge the site-selection plan when Ms. Bowser announced it in February.

Council member David Grosso, at-large independent, took up the torch for Ward 5 as well, saying that pulling the proposed site out of the legislation in order to consider it more carefully “is definitely a possibility.”

Residents in Ward 3 also said they were shut out of a project that will have a major effect on their neighborhood.

“We were presented with a done deal and this hearing is our only chance to be heard,” said Jackie Blumenthal Chairman, a Ward 3 advisory neighborhood commissioner. “It bundles together diverse projects that weren’t vetted for conditions on the ground.”

Council member Mary Cheh, the Ward 3 Democrat who said in February that the plan was a “well-conceived strategy,” backed off her support Thursday, saying it was frustrating that residents who in the last month have proposed alternative sites haven’t gotten any traction.

Ms. Cheh even floated the idea of having two smaller sites in Ward 3 instead of the large site proposed at 2619 Wisconsin Ave. NW.

“The units have to be attractive, they have to be safe, they have to be secure, they have to be dignified,” she said. “At the end of the day this has to work for the community and for the people who are coming to these temporary shelters.”

Council member Yvette Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat, said she had heard no opposition to the site selected for her area, but at least one resident contradicted that claim.

“This site is a poor choice,” said Benjamin Thomas, who was an advisory neighborhood commissioner for 18 years and has been involved in city activism for more than 50 years.

The proposed Ward 7 site is near five liquor stores — the most of any area in the ward, Mr. Thomas said, and there are no grocery stores or pharmacies close enough for families to walk to.

“It is a sinful act,” he said. “We talk about shelters for the homeless, I’m talking about homes for the homeless.”

Ms. Alexander countered that a Safeway and a Giant grocery are about 10 blocks away in East River Park, but conceded it would be a tough commute for a family with children without a car.

Some community support was expressed for the plan as it is currently written.

“It’s the right number of units to shut down D.C. General and it’s spread across the city,” Michael D. Wilker, senior pastor of Lutheran Church of the Reformation, said at the hearing. “I know it’s not perfect. But it’s a real plan, not a pie-in-the-sky wish.”

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