An inside look at the 396-bed shelter at 801 East Men’s Shelter in Southeast, D.C. (Courtesy Photo)

By Micha Green,
AFRO D.C. and Digital Editor

One of District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser’s big projects was finding ways to make the former hospital space at the historic St. Elizabeth’s East in Washington, D.C. useful and resourceful for the City’s residents- particularly vulnerable neighbors.

On Monday, Jan. 24, the third effort in transforming St. Elizabeth’s space was completed, with the ribbon cutting celebration of 801 East Men’s Shelter- a 396-bed shelter to house the District’s homeless men.

“Today is a big day because under the leadership of Mayor Muriel Bowser, we are celebrating the ribbon cutting of the third project at St. Elizabeth’s East. In 2018, we celebrated the opening of the Entertainment and Sports Arena, now the home of the 2019 WNBA Champions Washington Mystics.  In 2019, we celebrated the opening of the first Affordable Housing project, The Residences at St. Elizabeths East, and today we are celebrating the completion of the 801 East Men’s Shelter, and just a few weeks, we’ll be back on the red lot, to do a groundbreaking of the UHSGW Hospital,” said Latrena Owens, executive director of St. Elizabeth’s East Redevelopment under the direction of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development (DMPED).

“The opening of this new shelter at St. Elizabeths is just the latest way that we will continue to transform this site into a phenomenal place to live, work and play,” Owens added.  

Mayor Bowser speaks at the ribbon cutting for 801 East Men’s Shelter in Southeast, Washington, D.C. (Screenshot)

“I am indeed very proud to welcome you today, to St. Elizabeths… and to welcome you to a big part of the transformation of this campus, and that is the transformation of the men’s shelter at 801 East. It should remind everybody of how important it is as a city that when the City prospers, everybody prospers, and when the City has opportunity, that we expand that opportunity- and that means for everyone,” said Mayor Bowser at the ribbon cutting.

The shelter will not only offer housing for men with various needs, but also be a place that will offer valuable services and resources to help unhoused residents with gainful employment, training, outside appearance assistance and networking for more opportunities towards a more stable lifestyle. For instance, Bowser said 801 East Men’s Shelter provides the first East of the River Day Center. In addition, there will be low-barrier options offered for men who do not or cannot answer a lot of intake questions but need temporary shelter, while there will also be residence areas for seniors or employed men, who have different needs than someone in the general population.

“It will be a place where men can come get connected to services, take care of their personal needs, like laundry, a haircut, or just to warm up and connect with their neighbors,” Bowser explained.  “In another part of the building we will have beds for seniors and men who require medical attention. In another part of the building we have beds for men who are working, so their schedules require a different type of program than what the low-barrier program will offer. And so when we put all these pieces together, when we treat people with dignity, when we meet people where they are, we can achieve what we set out to do- and that is to make homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring.”

Phillip Lee attended the ribbon cutting as a walking and talking testimony to the positivity and change that can come from investing in the lives of vulnerable District residents.

“I came through the shelter and I had zero on my card,” said Lee. “I didn’t have anything. They gave me an opportunity with this program.  First I was a laborer, now I’m an electrician.  I have my own place now, all thanks to this program here,” Lee added before proudly introducing Bowser to speak.  

Some people saw the ribbon cutting of the homeless shelter as an odd celebration as homelessness is still a problem in the District.  Others took the time to criticize Bowser, whose Administration has worked to shut down and ruin tent areas created by D.C.’s unhoused neighbors.  

“Such a thing to celebrate.  We should be trying to eliminate the need for these, not build more,” a Twitter user named Ben Coleman wrote.

“Shelters are not housing.  Shelters are temporary.  The only thing that ends homelessness is housing.  You have displaced and bulldozed people living in tents.  We demand more people be placed in housing and not shuffled around the City,” Feed the People DC tweeted in reply to Bowser’s ribbon cutting press conference. 

However, for Bowser, who is running for re-election as Mayor of D.C., the ribbon cutting at 801 East Men’s Shelter was an outward act proving that she can keep her promises to her constituents. Further, the ribbon cutting at St. Elizabeth’s East is another way of showing that hard work pays off.  While some thought Bowser’s hopes to turn the space at St. Elizabeth’s East into a complex of spaces serving the community, some people thought she was crazy.  Yet only a few short years later and ribbons are being cut, doors are being opened and lives are being changed.

“When I think of where we come from, from the shelter that just closed, to this new shelter, I know that we’re making good on those promises. That every person deserves a chance to get back on his feet, to have the services that they need, and to have the City support that transformation, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do here,” Bowser said.  “When we first embarked on a serious, and series of very hard decisions on transforming our homeless services in the District, we knew that it would be difficult work, but we also knew that it was work that had to be done.  They told me that we would not be able to close DC General Family Shelter.  We all knew that it was a shelter that had no business serving families, we knew that every part of the City had to be part of the solution.  As a result, we’ve built smaller, more dignified family shelters across Washington, D.C. and driven down family homelessness by 73 percent.”  

Bowser’s hope is that through programs and housing such as 801 East Men’s Shelter, more opportunities can arise to find homes for the unhoused and reduce the homeless population in the District.

“They told me it was going to be hard to serve men, especially those who needed a second chance, third chance, fourth chance, fifth chance, whatever, an opportunity to get back on their feet and have safe and dignified housing.  And it’s true, this is a big, big first step in the work that we will do with men who need housing.  But, it’s going to demonstrate the same principle- with smaller, dignified spaces, people can get back on their feet and get the housing and the second chances that they deserve.”

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Micha Green

AFRO Washington, D.C. Editor