What promises to be impassioned public conversation about the future of the historic Federal City Shelter began this summer with a hearing led by City Councilmember Jim Graham.
Homeless men and women, the leaders of advocacy groups and nonprofits and city officials gathered to reflect back upon the meaning of the vast shelter which has served Washington’s homeless for nearly four decades.
And they looked ahead to the 2016 expiration of a federal requirement that the sprawling facility be used for homeless services.
They found both crisis and opportunity in the fact that the 200,000 square foot District-owned building, which is badly in need of repair, is located on a valuable piece of real estate at 2nd and D Streets NW.
The building is often simply called CCNV, for the Community for Creative Non-Violence, the activist group that took it over for use as a shelter in late 1983. The place actually houses three separate shelter programs, offering beds for more than 1,300 men and women. It also provides space for programs that help the homeless: Unity Health Care, Clean and Sober Streets and DC Central Kitchens.
At the hearing, speakers stressed the importance of ensuring the future of those programs and services. But some suggested a new facility or facilities might better serve the homeless, offering permanent supportive housing instead of emergency shelter beds, for example. The new place or places could be built either at the current site, or on a large adjacent parking lot that is owned by CCNV, or somewhere else in the city. What follows are some of the observations made at the hearing on the future of CCNV:
Councilmember Jim Graham spoke of a visit to the building. He described its deteriorating conditions and areas with signs warning of asbestos.
“I was surprised to see an area with skull and crossbones.”
Yet the mission of the facility remains important, Graham noted.
“There’s something very noble happening in this building, something so precious. Yet the building is worn out. It’s not that what’s going on there is worn out, it’s that the building needs to be revitalized with a better physical environment.”
“I was thinking about the word recovery, and you know the key part of the word recovery, is recover. To get something back. And the more we can provide the kind of physical environment for people to get something back, in terms of substance abuse, in terms of mental health, in terms of poverty, or illiteracy, whatever the issue is if we can recover the original potential of what people are bound, everybody has something to contribute.”
Homeless activist Eric Sheptock, a shelter resident and chairman of the grassroots group SHARC (for Shelter Housing and Respectful Change) observed that the facility houses “slightly less than one-fifth of D.C.’s homeless community” but with future planning, the property could be used to end homelessness.
“…..In January 2007 we counted 5,757 homeless people; in 2012; 6,954 people and in 2013; 6,859 people – a measly 1.4 percent decrease in the last year and and only after a 20 percent increase over the previous five. This project is a prime opportunity to reverse this trend of failure to take a sizeable chunk out of DCs homeless population and to create a paradigm shift. Who knows? The far-reaching implications of this effort may even reverse the trend of poor people being displaced and priced out of the city.”
Sheptock also cautioned against pressures to have the shelter shut down.
“We know that our neighbors on all sides …have complaints about the homeless and would love to see the shelter closed… But saying, “not in my backyard” or “NIMBY” does nothing to help the people who are being pushed out…At the end of the day, pushing someone out of your backyard pushes them into someone else’s backyard. Lets solve the problem this time, rather than sweeping it under someone else’s rug.” .
City Councilmember Marion Barry took a dim view of current anti-poverty efforts in the city, saying, “This city doesn’t have intentions of ending poverty…we ship poverty around…we need to go from dependency to self-sufficiency.”
To Sheptock, Barry said: “You are in the business of making sure that people have equal rights for human dignity and that human rights are protected in the District of Columbia, and right now that’s not the case for most of the homeless people. I’m the first to admit it. Mr. Graham would admit it.”
Then Barry asked whether a shelter the size of CCNV is too big and wondered whether smaller shelters would work better.
Rico Harris, the executive director of the CCNV shelter noted that the road to improving the building had been “a very slow process. An extremely slow process. But there is dialogue, and conversations, and inspections”
“We, as an organization have been trying to keep the Mitch Snyder legacy going. Mitch Snyder’s dream, Mitch Snyder’s idea, was to have a model shelter downtown with all the services involved. He brought in a lot of partners and the result of these partners and these partnerships are sitting at the panel with me and we’re talking thirty years later. He felt like the homeless could take care of the homeless. I myself am homeless, I live at the CCNV, and we feel like we’re on the frontlines, we have the experiences, we have the challenges we’ve overcome.”
And Harris went on to stress the continuing need for emergency shelter services.
“If there’s a consensus in the District government to do something else with this building it’s very important that you do something with 1,300 people that live in that building… they should keep on the front burner at all costs what to do with 1,300 lives.”
“At least now… they have a bed and a locker and an opportunity to rejoin mainstream society. An opportunity to go out and use the services of the city to get that done…And it looks like a hard task for a homeless person, standing in long lines for housing, standing in long lines for unemployment, standing in long lines for medical help. more of that needs to be created in the city but you close the shelter down and they don’t even get that opportunity.”
“The getting back to mainstream society process is not one size fit all”
Then Julia Lightfoot, executive director of Clean and Sober Streets spoke of how CCNV has shaped her life and many other lives. Her nonprofit, which is located in the shelter, has provided free recovery services to thousands of men and women since 1987.
“I was at school in Minnesota and Mitch Snyder came and spoke and I thought he was very charismatic and I thought well let me go out and work with the homeless for the summer and I’ll go back and finish school and that was 1987…
“I did the fasting, I lived up on Emerson St. With Mitch and Carol and also Mary Ellen Hombs and Harold Moss. They were a dynamic crew. I mean they could move mountains and they did. It was an incredible thing to watch. It was an incredible thing to be a part of. And Mitch really, he was a full-blown activist but he also recognized a need for services in that building.
“He was afraid of the government, he didn’t want the attachments to money and all that but he also had sense enough to know we need services in that building. When I came that summer, he said, you wanna set up the detox? And, Ok! I figured maybe a year…
“The other thing that was powerful about those years was you knew there wasn’t any money. I don’t want to turn any money down but what I do know is you can move mountains, provide incredible services, with very little.”
“The program and the community evolved around what worked and what didn’t based on how the client, how the resident was doing.. it evolved around community, which is what CCNV does”
After listening to some of the testimony, Graham, who chairs the council’s human services committee, proposed emergency legislation establishing a task force to determine the future of the downtown shelter. The bill, passed on July 10th, recognized the composition of the task force along with a timeline for proposing recommendations.
The members of the task force will be announced Aug 20. The group will have six months to make the recommendations to the city council and D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray regarding the future of the shelter. And in the spirit of CCNV, homeless advocates are organizing to ensure they have a voice in what happens next.