The Fate Of the CCNV and C.U.M. Shelters

Homeless people in Washington, DC and their advocates have been trying for quite some time to find out about the plans that the city and homeless service providers have for closing various shelters. It's been like pulling teeth. That's just DC politics for you. Nonetheless, people have a right to know about decisions that will directly affect them and to be involved in the decision making. After all, making the homeless feel like they matter and are part of society might help them to grow beyond homelessness. Furthermore, it makes no sense to close shelters or to decrease other human services in these tough economic times.

The CCNV (Community for Creative Non-Violence) Shelter has been threatened with closure for years and those threats have yet to materialize. But we have reason to believe that DC Mayor Adrian Fenty might have a trick or 2 up his sleeve for closing CCNV. His predecessor couldn't close Franklin School Shelter either; but, Adrian Fenty pulled it off. The future of Central Union Mission (C.U.M.) is looking rather ominous as well after 125 years in existence. The facts are forthcoming, slowly but surely, no thanks to the Fenty administration.

The story with Central Union Mission is as such. C.U.M. is presently located at 14th and R streets in northwest DC. The mission owned property on N. Georgia Ave. in the part of town known as Petworth. They planned to move into the Petworth property and sell their present location to a developer. They were supposed to vacate the premises by October 1st of this year, with the contract having already been signed.

But, as chance would have it, the mission got NIMBY'ed (Not In My Back Yard) out of their own property by residents of the Petworth community. Central Union Mission then did a land swap with the city in which they would receive the vacant and historic Gales School worth $9 million along with $7 million for renovations from the city in exchange for their $4 million Petworth property. With the mission being religiously-based, various community activists spoke out against them making this $12 million net gain off of the government, saying that it violated separation of church and state. So, that deal fell through.

This, of course left folk to wonder about the fate of Central Union Mission. They wouldn't be moving to Petworth or Gales School. The contract had already been signed with a building contractor for their present location. And October 1st, 2009 is fast approaching. So, I e-mailed David Treadwell, the director of C.U.M. He sent a very short reply stating that they "would not be moving by November". I was left to wonder how they pulled it off. No sooner had I begun to spread the news when a resident of that shelter told me that the shelter would be closing by October of 2010. Now we need to look into that. That is the extent of my knowledge on C.U.M. at this point, though others and myself continue to dig for the truth.

CCNV is a slightly different story. Mayor Fenty (who is quite unsympathetic toward the poor and homeless but caters and kowtows to wealthy developers) has tried to close CCNV, but found that it will be harder than previously thought. The CCNV administration has told me that the mayor discussed closing the shelter with them. However, CCNV's lawyers dug up the restrictive covenant that was signed between Mitch Snyder and the Reagan Administration in 1988. This restrictive covenant states that the Federal City Shelter (which houses CCNV, 2 more shelters, DC Central Kitchen and Unity Health Care -- 5 homeless service providers) will remain a shelter until 2018. During the July 17th hearing (in which I can be seen testifying at on the right side of your screen), Clarence Carter, the director of DC Government's Dept. of Human Services (DHS), was asked about the prospect of DC Government taking over CCNV, a non-profit. Carter stated that the city is limited in what it can do to CCNV, due to this restrictive covenant. It stands to reason that the mayor and Mr. Carter were slightly chagrinned when they tried and failed to close another shelter (in addition to Franklin and the DC Village Family shelter). It serves them right.

The mere fact that the mayor even tried to close CCNV speaks to multiple issues. First of all, with him being a DC naive.....err native, he should've known about the fight that Mitch Snyder and dozens of homeless people had with the Reagan Admin. during the 80's. They squatted in the vacant Federal City College building, protested and went to jail. Mitch eventually went on a 51-day hunger strike. The doctor announced on T.V. that he might not make it through the night if he didn't resume eating. At that point, President Reagan signed the building over to the city and had it renovated and turned into a shelter. The Mitch Snyder saga has been chronicled in the film "Promises To Keep" , which Martin Sheen also participated in.

Besides that, more and more people are becoming homeless due to the economic downturn. We need a safety net. What's more is that Mayor Fenty has lost the confidence of the poor and homeless community due to his mis-handling of other shelter closures. People are worried that he will continue to close shelters more quickly than he creates supportive or affordable housing in the District.

Consider the Franklin School Shelter closure. Fenty can be seen in a February 23rd video on the right side of your screen (after my intro) discussing the Franklin School Shelter closure. He was actually at the jail promoting a job-training program. But with all of the heat he is taking for closing Franklin, he saw fit to put in a plug about that closure. He said in the video,"I closed Franklin. I housed the men that were at Franklin." He conveniently forgot a few figures. DHS housed 78 Franklin residents (and several hundred from other shelters). Franklin held over 300 men and about 1,000 different men stayed there during a 3-month period. Altogether the Permanent Supportive Housing program has housed about 450 people since it was begun last year. An official count done in January of this year indicated that DC has 6,228 homeless people, up from 6,044 last January. This result takes into account the fact that about 450 people have been housed through PSH. If it weren't for PSH, there would've been at least 6,678 homeless people in DC this year, an increase of at least 634. That said, there actually has been a 10% increase in the number of people needing shelter or housing in the District (from 6,044 homeless people in January of 2008 to 6,228 this year plus the 450 housed through PSH). While any success in housing people is appreciated and laudible, these numbers show that now is not the time for closing shelters (or decreasing any human services). The fact of the matter is that the Franklin closure was about appeasing the business community and had nothing to do with Fenty "caring" about the homeless.

Add to this the fact that the majority of those who stayed at Franklin are now at other shelters or on the street. This detracts from the mayor's credibility. The homeless who are at these other shelters see the former Franklin residents and are less inclined to believe the mayor when he says that he is going to house people. That's not to speak of the recommendations put forth by Martha Burt of the Urban Institute wherein she suggested that the mayor cut shelter capacity in half. The mayor is following her recommendations religiously, which is all the more reason to fear that many homeless people will be left out in the cold this winter.

One of the things that bothers me about our trusted intellectuals whether they are part of government or the Urban Institute is that they are often very bad at math while doing work that requires advanced math skills. Case in point: The city is often talking about "average shelter usage", when they should be talking about "peak shelter usage". For those who are not so mathematically inclined, I'll keep the numbers simple as I explain. Suppose that on one night 2 people need shelter and the following night 6 people need shelter. The average is 4. If we prepare for the average number of 4, then when 6 people need shelter, there will be a shortage of shelter space.

Finally, neither I nor any homeless advocate thinks that a person should live at a shelter, but that they should go from shelter to housing -- not from shelter to the streets or another shelter. Nonetheless, when it comes to shelter and housing, it is not an either/or type of thing, but rather a both/and type of thing. So, let us be clear as to what we're fighting for -- shelter in the immediate and housing eventually because.....



Deb said…
What an interesting and well-researched Op-ed piece. You should send it to the Post, or the Times, or something! So proud of you Eric. Your advocacy shine through in your writing. Keep it up!

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