THE FACADE OF CARING: Franklin School (Shelter) Takeover

Occupy DC: Franklin School (Shelter) Takeover

Well Washington, DC's Franklin School Shelter is in the headlines again. It's the issue that won't go away -- with good reason -- and may very well be the most read-about building in the nation. It is on the fast track toward becoming the centerpiece of the Occupy DC Movement.

On Saturday, November 19th, 2011 13 people re-entered the former homeless shelter which has sat vacant for over 3 years now -- closed by former DC Mayor Adrian Fenty after he claimed to care too much for the homeless to allow them to be warehoused in the "old building" (built in 1869) which was "unfit for human habitation". Ironically, several homeless people have frozen to death outside since the closure on September 26th, 2008. "Caring" was used as a pretext for closing the Franklin School Shelter and is now being used as a pretext for raiding the Occupy Movement's camps. That's not to speak of the fact that many occupiers are being beaten by the "caring" cops who are sent in with the blessing of the Department of Homeland Security to remove them.

Truth be told, Mayor Fenty and DC's Downtown BID (Business Improvement District) felt that the homeless were an eyesore and didn't want them downtown. (In September of 2009 a DC Examiner article entitled "Bummed Out On K Street" explained how the closure had actually made the homeless MORE visible.) As for the police raids across the country, they are actually for the purpose of silencing dissenters who are calling politicians and the wealthy out on their apparent corruption and corporate greed while calling for an end to high unemployment, healthcare costs that are enough to make you sick and student loans that take a lifetime to pay off -- just to name a few.

Much remains to be said about how much the DC Government actually "cares" about its homeless constituents. To his credit, Fenty and his administration conceived the Permanent Supportive Housing Program in April 2008 and had it up and running 5 months later. The program has housed at least 1,500 homeless people at this point -- 5 times shelter's capacity at closing. (The shelter held 240 men from the fall of 2002 until the fall of 2005 and 300 men until it's closing -- with there having been much unused space still.)

But, since the fall of 2008, the need for shelter in DC has INCREASED, with PSH and other housing programs like HUD (Housing and Urban Development) being unable to keep pace with the increased need. In January 2008 Washington, DC had 6,044 homeless people according to official records. In January 2011 the city had 6,546 homeless people. The number of homeless people in DC has increased by more than 25% since the building was first used as a shelter and by more than 8% since it's closure. Franklin Park which is frequented by the homeless community is right across the road. Taken together, these facts don't justify the closure or the refusal to reopen Franklin School as a shelter. And Fenty's broken campaign promises -- like the promise to keep Franklin School open as a shelter -- figure largely into why he became the "one-term mayor" that many of us told him he would be.

The Franklin (named after Ben Franklin) was built in 1869 and first served as an elementary school, thus the name. It is situated across the road from a park that once served as a training ground for 19th-century troops (and has now become the battleground). Since then, it has served as an office building and housed the local Board of Education.

In the fall of 2002 it was sitting vacant as homeless people literally froze to death in the park across the street. A group named Mayday DC broke into the building and demanded that the city turn it into a homeless shelter. The city obliged but said they would close it in the spring of 2003, which they did. Mayday DC came back, re-entered the building and demanded that it be kept open as a shelter. The city conceded and gave into their demands once again and the building served the homeless community for another 5 and a half years.

However, there was a failed effort by the city to close it beginning in June 2006. (It was during this failed attempt that I first began to advocate for the homeless people of our nation's capital.) Then-mayor Anthony Williams had threatened to close the shelter which held 240 men at the time and said he would renovate and reopen another defunct school-turned-shelter at the historic Gales School. It would hold 120 men.

However, the Gales School remains a useless shell to this day -- having been gutted -- with the renovation still in limbo. The Central Union Mission (which is not a city-run shelter) is set to acquire the Gales School from the city and to relocate there.

Two women -- Mary Ann Luby and Becky Sambol -- came to Franklin School Shelter to tell its 240 residents about the impending closure and ask what actions we were willing to take to prevent it. Only about a dozen men came forth and we formed the Committee to Save Franklin Shelter. Mary Ann (who passed away on 11/29/10) guided us through the maze called DC Government and introduced us to the various power brokers and decision makers. We won that fight as outgoing mayor Anthony Williams reversed his decision to sell Franklin School to developer Herb Miller and paid him $500,000 (ostensibly for architectural design work and other labor that had been done by his firm already).

Then, there was the 2008 closure. Mayor Fenty had succeeded at what his predecessor was unable to do. The reason? Well, they had very different approaches. Williams was honest. He said, in no uncertain terms, that he planned to close the shelter, open another with half the capacity and turn Franklin School into a boutique hotel. He had no qualms about letting the public know that he was essentially giving this city property to a developer who could then use it to make a profit. He didn't say word one about caring for the homeless.

Fenty, on the other hand, didn't have any developers lined up. He had no planned usage for the building. He wasn't honest about the fact that the Downtown BID and entrepreneurs located near Franklin School were pressuring him to close the shelter and get the homeless out of sight. He used caring for the homeless as a pretext for closing the shelter -- stating that the building was old and unfit for human habitation (even though the city had just spent $2 million doing a partial renovation of the building just months before the closure). He said he didn't want to "warehouse the homeless in large shelters", but said nothing of closing larger shelters that hold 360 to 1,350 people. Thus, his story didn't hold water. (But not many people knew that and he used it to his political advantage.)

Lesson learned: Honest politicians don't get far.

Some might argue that the city seems to care about it homeless community to some degree and that DC has some of the most robust homeless services of any city in the nation. I would agree on the latter count. However, there are more facts than I can reasonably put into a single blog post which prove that the city does only what it HAS TO to for the homeless community. Non-profits and social services are in place to "keep the lid on the pressure cooker" in a manner of speaking.

All of this brings us back to the issue of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. It would seem that many mayors have taken lessons from Adrian Fenty. (Hopefully they'll meet the same fate.) But the fact of the matter is that Homeland Security is coordinating the efforts of mayors across the country and the "FACADE OF CARING" may very well be one of the oldest ploys in the book. Don't get sucked in by it.

Eric Jonathan Sheptock
Chairman of SHARC (Shelter, Housing And Respectful Change)
Cell phone: (240) 305-5255
425 2nd St. NW
Washington, DC 20001-2003

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