Federal City Shelter in D.C. (Photo courtesy of flickr.com)
“It’s one thing to not be in your own home; it’s quite another to be in a place that’s uninhabitable,” Shondra Patrick told the AFRO. Patrick and her family are among the 11,623 families in the District without permanent housing. Faced with the realities of shelter living, Patrick counts herself blessed to have found accommodations at a friend’s home.
“My family is split up – the kids with me and my husband with his brother – but at least we are not in a shelter. I saw the inside of D.C. General a year ago, and it scared me,” Patrick said of the now-shuttered 280-family facility on the campus of the former hospital site.
The D.C. General facility was viewed by many as a dehumanizing last resort to sleeping on the streets, with reports of rodent and raccoon infestations, skin diseases caused by unsanitary conditions, and incidents of employees sexually assaulting clients or taking photos of them while they showered – a common occurrence.
But were conditions at D.C. General on par with what is available or an outlier of homeless facilities?
A walk-through of the 1,350-bed Federal City Shelter (also known as the Community for Creative Non-Violence – CCNV Shelter) in Northwest, suggests both. According to its website, CCNV is the largest shelter in the nation, which highlights the conundrum city officials face in improving facilities whose existing infrastructure require constant, high-cost maintenance. Bracketed by tourist attractions, popular hotel chains, and the D.C. Courts, the massive building (taking up an entire city block) houses adult men and women in an open-floor, barracks-style setting.
Visibly clean, the odor of disinfectant lingers in the corridors of each floor and its common areas are reminiscent of a traditional college dormitory. When the AFRO visited the building, repairs were underway in the stairwells and landings of each floor, as well as the front entrance foyer.
As Donald Page, director of Administrative Offices at the CCNV, explained, while the facility has not had any issues as severe as those reported at D.C. General, the 70-plus-year-old building’s core systems are a source of aggravation. “The heating and air condition systems can be a problem, and because of the age of the building we can, on occasion, experience problems with the electrical system,” Page said. “We have the occasional mouse problem as well, and because we have a large, constantly changing population, bedbugs can be an issue. But we spray for those ‘little darlings’ constantly.”
Between ongoing construction one block away, D.C. Central Kitchen on the basement level, and two overnight women’s shelters unaffiliated with CCNV in the same building, Page said rats have been known to surface around the parameters of the building. He said the city works constantly to abate any rat issues inside the facility.
The District’s Interagency on Housing’s Strategic Plan 2015-2020, notes, as does Page, that current shelter facilities have aging plumbing, heating and cooling systems, and crumbling infrastructure, and they come with significant annual price tags for maintenance, paid for by the Department of General Services (DGS) and the Department of Human Services (DHS).
Calling the conditions in the vast majority of the District’s shelters “simply unacceptable,” the report noted that many of the low-barrier shelters for single adults required clients to leave at 7 a.m. and not return until 7 p.m., offering little help in reducing the “trauma of whatever life events have led individuals and families to shelters.”
For shelter dwellers, like LaKeith Davis, it is the time spent idling outside facilities like CCNV that create trauma. Forced to contemplate his life from the sidewalk or a park bench, Davis said, is like enduring the insecurity of homelessness or eviction each morning. “The shelter clean and the folks do their jobs, but having to hit the streets at 7 feels like a bucket of cold water is being thrown on me,” Davis said. “There is nothing normal about temporary living spaces and even though I am grateful for it, I cannot turn it off in my head, that I’ve hit rock bottom.”