By Mark Rose
Some residents of Arlington, Virginia, angry about a county plan to open a homeless shelter in a downtown office building, had sharp words for officials at a third and final public meeting held on the project.
At the January 14 hearing, residents of condominium and apartment complexes near the site contended that the Arlington County Board had ignored their personal safety. And they expressed worries that the planned Homeless Services Center, to be located in a building recently purchased by the county, would would draw violent criminals to their neighborhood and reduce property values in the area.
But the project has won praise from advocates for the poor who say the shelter, scheduled to open its doors to the county’s single adult homeless population in November 2014, will help get indigent people off the streets and into job training programs and permanent housing so they can live with dignity.
The seven-story Thomas Building at 2020 14th Street, walking distance from Courthouse Metro, was bought November 17 for just over $27 million. Arlington County plans to spend $42.6 million renovating it over the next five years. In addition to the shelter, the redeveloped building will include office space for county government, as well as space for retail shops and commercial offices. The county plans to close the existing Court Square West emergency homeless facility the day before the new shelter opens.
While they are upset, shelter opponents acknowledge they can’t stop the plan from going ahead. “Arlington County is bound and determined to do this,” said Woodbury Heights Condo Association President Kenneth Robinson, its most vocal and consistent critic.
In an interview, Robinson said he did not believe the county looked very hard for alternative locations that would have been farther away from homes, though he said a number of such places would have been available.
The nearby Court Square emergency shelter, which has operated for 20 years with negligible incidents of crime, is still perceived by neighborhood residents as a potential danger according to Robinson. “I think it is a perceived danger,” he said, “and perception is a reality.”
County officials added to the unease of opponents when they said they do not plan to hire security guards to patrol the site. The shelter’s staff will use security cameras to monitor the building’s perimeter. Opponents contended that if a fight were to start, staff could not summon police in time to stop the violence.
“It sounds like you’re blowing off the community; a security camera is not going to help you when you have a situation,” said a woman in the audience. Arlington Police Department Captain Andy Penn countered that his department’s response time is noted for its speed; the nearest officer would immediately go to the scene of a fight or other dangerous incident in progress. The county’s Justice Complex is right across the street from the shelter site.
Shelter advocates, led by Kathleen Sibert, executive director of A-SPAN, the Arlington non-profit that will run the shelter and runs the current one, said she is delighted the shelter is going forward. But she added in an interview she understands the opponents’ concerns.
“I understand they’re really afraid, afraid it’s going to change (the neighborhood) a lot.” In reality, she added, “it’s not going to change anything.” Sibert noted that these people are not criminals just because they’re homeless.
She added that her organization, which has run the Court Square emergency shelter just down the street for about 20 years without incident, expects no crime or violence problem at all. “What does homeless mean? It just means you don’t have a home.”
If a homeless person comes to them who is a danger to himself or others, they will direct that person to assistance elsewhere or to the nearby emergency room at Arlington’s Virginia Hospital Center.
“I don’t think there should be fear of these people at all. They’re like you and me,” said Sue Randall, a retired Arlington County school teacher who attended. Randall spent her career teaching teens who spoke languages other than English.
This new shelter, which will be open to Arlington’s homeless year-round and around the clock will offer the homeless a “year-round opportunity for a place to go,” said South Arlington resident Jeff Brady. “It’s been a long time coming.”
A required special use permit hearing before the county planning commission to deal with residential zoning in a business-zoned area is scheduled for March 4, and a further hearing before the Arlington County Board is set for March 16 or 19. Renovation is expected to start in the fall of 2013.