After 17 years serving as a major hub for homeless families seeking shelter, D.C. General recently shuttered its doors — part of the Bowser administration’s plan to move occupants to smaller, more apartment-style units in closer proximity to services and amenities throughout the District.
D.C. General drew significant attention following the disappearance in 2014 of Relisha Rudd, an 8-year-old girl living there with her mother. The investigation into her disappearance shed light on an open-air drug market and other conditions unfit for children.
“We should not have used D.C. General on the scale we did,” said DC Department of Human Services (DHS) Director Laura Zeilinger. “After the city closed D.C. Village, there was a greater need for emergency shelter than we could accommodate in the year-long program, which is how D.C. General ended up growing to the point it was accommodating 270 families, including hundreds of children. That’s not a great way to serve families experiencing the trauma of homelessness,” she added.
D.C. has one of the highest proportions of homeless families per 10,000 families, according to data from the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Since 2015, D.C. has provided year-round shelter access for families in precarious housing situations but that hasn’t stopped the 21 percent spike in familial homelessness within the last year.
In the four years since Bowser made it one of her campaign promises to shut down D.C. General and replace it with smaller shelters, DHS and other parties have facilitated a process that has moved hundreds of families into supportive housing. The transition has taken place as construction began on smaller facilities. Those citywide projects have resulted in 80 units of short-term family housing with more set to be completed before 2020.
In May, D.C. General stopped accepting new families. Between the months of July and October, DHS moved 100 families into housing, per data the D.C. Council mandated the agency submit. Last week, the last of the families occupying D.C. General left the grounds. The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, the contractor that ran the shelter, also phased out its staff.
In addressing the greater issue of some families not being able to secure affordable, permanent housing, Zeilinger says DHS has worked with other key players to meet families halfway in their search for appropriate housing and not be penalized for doing so.
“A lot of our work has been with property owners and managers to figure out how to bridge the gap between the criteria to rent and the situation that families who need a fresh start are facing,” Zeilinger said.
“We wanted to make sure that families could access housing,” she added. “We focused on their needs and worked to identify them to make sure those things are lined up. Some families are coming with debit, credit and eviction history and there’s a lot that entails in supporting families to get them to permanency.”