Putting the brakes On Shelter Closures

The DC Council was due to begin their 2-month recess on Tuesday, July 15th. However, the need arose for them to create some emergency legislation. One of the matters at hand was the fate of the Gales School at 65 Massachusetts Ave., NW. They ended up having a late-night session on the 15th. During that session, they decided to make the mayor remove all references to other shelters such as Franklin School and Harriet Tubman from the proposed legislation which, if passed, would allow him to dispose of the Gales School, which is slated to become a homeless shelter once again.

Having so graciously postponed their recess by 2 days, the Council reconvened on July 17th to review the mayor’s re-written legislation and to vote on it. It only took an hour of deliberations for them to grant the mayor permission to dispose of the Gales School property in a land swap with Central Union Mission. While some people may feel that they have reason to rejoice, others will suffer ill-effects as a result of the passage of Bill 17-899. No matter what side of the issue you are on, some very interesting points were raised.

The Council would not allow the mayor to juxtapose what is being done at other shelters with the land swap being done by DC Government and the Central Union Mission. (C.U.M. will acquire the Gales School and $7 million in exchange for the property they had previously planned to move into in the 3500 block of Georgia Ave. , which will be turned into affordable housing by DC Government.) In the same sense, Council Chairman Vincent Gray is against the idea of juxtaposing the creation of housing for the homeless with the number of shelter beds. He has correctly determined that, even after housing is created, there is still a need to maintain a certain number of emergency shelter beds. Mr. Gray told Councilman Tommy Wells, who chairs the Committee on Human Services, to take stock of the number of shelter beds and to make certain that we will have enough this winter. If Chairman Gray has his way, no more shelters will be closed until we are sure that we don’t need them.

Councilman Catania was concerned about the fact that Central Union Mission is a faith-based organization. He elicited a promise from David Treadwell, director of C.U.M., to adhere to DC’s Human Rights Act. That entails not refusing to serve someone based on their faith. Mr. Catania was not against the mission only hiring Christians. His emphasis was on who will get served by the mission.

David Treadwell, who had not been scheduled to testify, was asked to do so candidly. He obliged. He emphasized that the mission serves all people in need who come to its doors and will continue to do so. He spoke of a Muslim man who is not made to attend C.U.M.’s Christian services, but is allowed to sit in the hall instead during services. (More than 1 person told me that this Muslim man should be allowed to do something else, not just sit in the hall.)

Of the 12 council members present (with Marion Barry being the only no-show), Phil Mendelson was the only one to vote against the bill. He pointed out that the city was giving a $9 million building and $7 million in cash to the mission, in exchange for property worth $4 million. The city is losing $12 million in this deal. Mr. Mendelson suggested that the city retain the property and run the shelter themselves. At times it seemed like he was reading the testimony that a friend of mine had delivered a week earlier. He was the only one saying what most of us who were present wanted to hear.

Tom Howarth of the father McKenna Center was terribly disappointed as a result of the decision. He fears that his kitchen will be overwhelmed with clientele as a result of there being another shelter just a few blocks from his kitchen. He was equally disappointed by the fact that his concern was not even given short shrift in the legislative meeting.

The Council seems to be paying attention to the issue of homelessness these days. That’s a plus. At times Jim Graham and Carol Schwartz seemed to be looking directly at me in an effort to read my expression and sense my reaction to what was being said. I was definitely glad that Franklin School Shelter had been well-spoken for. It has been taken off of the chopping block for a while. The Council was overwhelmingly against the closure of Franklin. While I revel in that victory, I’m sure that there are those who want to know whether or not I’ll remain involved in other issues that affect the homeless community of our nation’s capital. The answer is an emphatic: YES.

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