Sex, Drugs and Expensive Investigations At DC Shelters

On March 31st DC Councilman Tommy Wells (Dem-Ward 6) who oversees the Dept. of Human Services (DHS) held a post-hypothermia hearing during which he intended to hear testimony from the homeless and their service providers about homeless services this past winter. As is always the case, people strayed from the intended topic of discussion. Very little was said about homeless services that are specifically related to hypothermia. Much was said about year-round problems.

There were the usual complaints about dilapidated buildings. several women complained about crumbling ceilings at the Families Forward Shelter on the grounds of the defunct DC General Hospital. At least one woman described how she moved her child to a spot where the ceiling wasn't crumbling and placed herself under the hole in the ceiling as a way of keeping the child safe. She was horrified by the thought of rodents falling out of the ceiling onto her or her child. People also described the filth that one sees upon entering the building. The shelter was said to be rat- and mice-infested and residents described seeing mouse feces in the area where small children play.

There were also the age-old complaints about mean, insensitive staff. One must wonder if anything will ever be done about this or any of the other redundant complaints.

One of the more touching complaints which I heard for the first time (being that I don't deal much with family shelter issues) was that of small children having no playtime activities much of the time. A volunteer who sometimes directs playtime activities spoke of there being whole families sleeping in the designated play area when she arrived for duty, due to over-crowding at the shelter.

However, there were also several people who expressed gratitude for the shelter and explained that the staff did their best to serve their homeless clients. Some even teared up as they explained how that, had it not been for the shelter, both they and their children would've been outside in the elements during the harsh winter.

(It is important to note that the director and several staff members of Families Forward were present and brought some of their clients with them. This raises questions pertaining to how much of the testimony of the clients was fixed by the staff. Councilman Wells was sure to ask people whether or not they were told to say what they said and if they were promised anything in return for their testimony, though a "No" answer doesn't prove much. The staff probably told them to say "No" if asked whether or not they were promised anything. It's all part of the deal. Thus, their responses were inclusive.)

A man explained that the New York Avenue Men's Shelter went 35 days without hot water during hypothermia. He said, "If you were a restaurant, you'd've been shut down. You had no hot water for the showers or for the kitchen. They were washing dishes that are used to feed 360 men in cold water." He also explained that the problem was only fixed after a homeless man went to an ICH (Inter-agency Council on Homelessness) meeting in November and complained to City Administrator Neil Albert. Though the problem was fixed the very next day, he called for reprocussions for the Catholic Charities employees who allowed the problem to persist for 5 weeks without reporting it to the appropriate personnel. You might say that he wants someone from Catholic Charities to be in "hot water" over the shelter's lack of hot water for 5 weeks.

But the real kickers were the testimonies about drug sales and sex scandals at the shelters. On March 17th, a former employee of the Harriet Tubman Women's shelter (also on the grounds of DC General Hospital) was arrested after selling drugs to two undercover agents -- once at the shelter and once at his home. During the sting, police found crack, marijuana, heroin and several guns at his home. As a result, Catholic Charities is under fire pertaining to its hiring practices. That's not to speak of the age-old complaint about shelters hiring unprofessional, uncaring ex-cons to run their shelters -- a concern which was raised during the hearing on March 31st -- AGAIN!!!

Women from the family shelter described how employees made sexual advances toward them. In at least one case, an employee invited a female shelter resident to his house, though she turned him down. Women also spoke of how that, when they ask for blankets or other needed items or services, male employees often tell them that they can only get what they need if they have sex with these men. Even some of the women who failed to oblige told of instances in which they knew of clients who had sex with staff. Though all council hearings go on the public record and appear on the DC Government channel, Tommy Wells ordered the cameras off during several people's testimonies in order to protect them against any retribution.

While I will save further comments on the topics raised herein for a future blog post, I will end this post with the sentiments expressed by a homeless woman from yet another homeless shelter -- the John L. Young Women's Shelter. As I discussed this hearing as well as maintenance issues at John Young with a homeless ladyfriend of mine, she responded with the following: "We don't need to put all of that money into an expensive investigation or into fixing the plumbing at this shelter. That's money that could go towards giving me housing. What happened happened and it is what it is. So, leave it be and give me housing." Those are wise words. And let's not forget that people complained about various problems at the Franklin School Shelter and the DC Village Family Shelter and they've both been shut down. (The city spent over $2 million fixing up Franklin right before closing it.) It stands to reason that, if people complain about the Families Forward Shelter anymore, then Mayor Fenty will see that as a reason to close it down. Then we'll have even less shelter for a growing number of homeless people during a deep recession. Just a thought.


dc gal said…
Respectfully, rather than wisdom her comments represent part of the problem. Why should the state, i.e. the taxpayer, be giving this lady housing? No, society and not necessarily via the government, should be giving her a hand up instead of a handout. Let's help her get the marketable skills and the job she needs to get her own housing.

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