An Abandoned Building, A D.C. Mayor, and a Worsening Problem

ir_franklinschoolAt the Women’s March on Saturday, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser stood in front of the podium, telling the crowd how “the injustice must end.”

The injustice Bowser was referring to is D.C.’s lack of statehood, which Bowser claims is a threat to women’s rights itself because D.C. has no representatives or senators in Congress to speak up for its residents. Nor does it have a governor, making Mayor Bowser the figurehead of D.C. politics.

“Already, an emboldened congress continues to threaten the rights of women,” Bowser said. “Year to year, they tell us that we can’t use our own money to support low-income women and their health care. And now they want to make it permanent.”

She then led the crowd into a chant, urging the federal government to “leave us alone.”

Yet, a few blocks down with its graffiti-scrawled brick walls, padlocked gates and boarded windows, the Franklin School is a shell of what it used to be: a homeless shelter.

The Franklin School Shelter was shut down in 2008 with hopes that a boutique hotel or an art museum would replace it. Neither plan went through and the building remains unused. Now, Bowser plans to close D.C. General Hospital’s mega-shelter and open a shelter in each ward.

“The Bowser Administration has a plan to make homelessness rare, brief, and non-recurring,” an official press release said. “To achieve this goal Mayor Bowser is announcing an all eight ward strategy that includes legislative and administrative measures to improve the District’s homelessness crisis response system for families.”

The mega-shelter has been operating for the past 15 years, but with little acclaim. According to a New York Times article, residents have been treated for bug bites and infectious diseases due to living in a hospital. Not to mention, vermin roams the overcrowded halls. More than 200 families are housed in D.C. General. The smaller shelters will accommodate approximately 50 families each.

“Yes, the long term plan for the District is to provide housing in smaller centers,” Michael Ferrell, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, said. “265 families in just one sector is a high concentration. Breaking it up into smaller facilities will improve the standard of living and reduce costs.”

Bowser’s administration also plans to tighten restrictions on who qualifies for shelters, claiming that too many homeless from Maryland and Virginia jurisdictions are using D.C. services and are wasting government money.

Since D.C. has regulations to provide housing to the homeless during freezing temperatures, the city spends approximately $80,000 a night on hotel rooms for the homeless according to a Department of Human Services report.

“We have an obligation to serve our residents,” Bowser said at a city council meeting late November. “But we cannot serve the entire region. We’re serving everybody else’s residents. We can’t serve our own. Our own residents are standing at the back of the line.”

The new policy would require two documents, like a bill or pay stub, to prove the applicant is indeed from D.C.

“I think what’s important to understand is that most jurisdictions have restrictions on residence already,” Ferrell said. “The District has a spotlight since it’s the nation’s capital. With that said, it really is about everyone in the DMV carrying their fair share. No one jurisdiction should bear a disproportional amount of work in making sure that people are housed. It’s not one dimensional; it’s a two-way street.”

However, for some homeless people such paperwork is hard to produce, especially if they have been unemployed or on the streets for a considerable amount of time. Sandra Alcorn, a homeless woman, said the restrictions are not going to help the homeless community whatsoever.

“It’s like Mayor Gray all over again,” Alcorn said. “That’s what it is. I remember one time when they forced all us to get on a warming bus, but then did not do a damn thing afterwards. All this policy’s gonna do is put more of us on the streets.”

More or less, D.C. mayors have the reputation for letting down the homeless community because no one has successfully addressed the issue in any impactful way despite multiple attempts to create policies that would make a worthwhile difference.

According to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ annual survey, which was completed in January, homelessness in D.C. rose 14 percent in the past year.

Courtesy of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

When compared to all other jurisdictions, D.C. has the highest amount of homeless families: 1,491 families in total with 2,722 children in those families.

In the latest Department of Housing and Urban Development report, overall homelessness has declined by three percent nationally, but in 13 states, including D.C., homelessness increased.

Both the HUD report and MWCOG report said that a lack of affordable, permanent housing remains and the accessibility to them remains an issue for the homeless community.

As for Linwood Thompson, a paraplegic panhandler who suffered from deep vein thrombosis, he said the city might have the best intentions at heart, but they’re bad at succeeding in their goals.

“I stay with a friend,” Thompson said. “I don’t live in no shelter. I don’t want to. It’s hard to get a job when the government don’t help like they say they will.”

Thompson begs a block away from Franklin Square, the very place where people poured out when the Franklin Square Shelter closed. Since then, Franklin Square has gotten a bad reputation.

“Everybody knows it’s a bad place,” Thompson said. “Even I don’t go there. Franklin’s what’s going to happen if they don’t follow up. I’m telling you — don’t go. All that’s ever bad happened there and if they don’t do what they say they will, there will only be more Franklin Squares.”

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON NYU LOCAL