D.C.'s Biggest Homeless Shelter Is About to Close. Will Amazon Take Its Place?

Illustration: Angelica Alzona

On a recent spring evening, a group of mothers at D.C. General Family Homeless Shelter were enjoying the weather, chatting outside near the building’s entrance. Two young boys whizzed past on scooters, colorful lights flashing. Across the street on the playground, kids shrieked, playing catch and chasing each other around. In every way, it was a scene of childhood at play. A scene of the tightknit community both outside and inside the shelter.

D.C. General was originally the city’s only public hospital, built in Washington’s Southeast neighborhood on the Anacostia River. In 2001, after then-Mayor Anthony Williams decided to shut down the hospital, the city started using the building as an emergency homeless shelter during hypothermia season. Since then, the sprawling former hospital complex grew to serve as the city’s largest family homeless shelter, and currently houses around 239 families.

The shelter has been rightly criticized for its subpar living conditions—crumbling tile, mice and roach infestations, mold, and a general lack of facilities. But over the past seven years, the families and organizations that operate within the shelter have created a makeshift community of their own. This is what happens when poor families living on public land are pushed out the back door, while powerful corporate interests are invited in for dinner.

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

In 2014, D.C. General became synonymous with one tragic incident. That year, eight-year-old Relisha Rudd went missing from the shelter. Rudd was last seen on a hotel security video with Kahlil Tatum, a janitor from the shelter. Tatum later killed his wife and himself. Four years later, Rudd has still not been found.

Against the backdrop of the Rudd tragedy, Mayor Muriel Bowser pledged to shut down the shelter. While the living conditions at the shelter are less than ideal, some families and housing activists have questioned what the alternative is. Other community members remain confused as to why, after several years of promising the shelter’s closure, it is finally happening now. The city plans to erect six smaller, short-term family shelters across the city over the course of the next year, but only three of those shelters will be ready by the end of 2018, when D.C. General is set to close.

On a Sunday night in January, families living at the shelter received a notice from the city government slipped under their doors: D.C. General would be shutting down within the year.

Jamila Larson is the founder and executive director of the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, which provides programming and volunteers to play with homeless children around D.C. Its largest site is D.C. General. (Full disclosure: I have volunteered with the Playtime Project there, which is how I became interested in this story.) Larson said that after years of hearing the shelter was going to close, she was taken aback by the news.

“We were totally shocked,” Larson said. “I don’t want to say we were in denial, but we’ve heard for years that D.C. General was closing. [Former Mayor Vincent] Gray said he was going to close it by the time he left office. So it’s just hard to believe.”

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

After D.C. General closes its doors, the families who live there will have to find shelter elsewhere, with the help of the city case managers. Some families will secure long-term housing through a Rapid Rehousing subsidy. Others will move into one of the new, smaller neighborhood shelters, or into other low-income housing projects. And a large share of the families will move into yet another temporary shelter with subpar living conditions: the hotels that dot New York Avenue on the northeast side of the city.

The Department of Human Services estimates that roughly one quarter of the families now living at D.C. General will have to move into one of the hotels on the outskirts of town that double as emergency overflow shelters. Over the past few years, the hotels have become a last resort for the D.C. government, which has struggled to negotiate with landlords to take in homeless families. The city spends an estimated $80,000 per night to house roughly 600 homeless families at the hotels. Last fiscal year, the city paid $28 million in taxpayer funds to the hotels.

“The future of family homelessness—at least in the next couple of years—will be concentrated in the motels,” Larson said. “We’re concerned about whether there’s going to be flexibility and room for Playtime in the future motels, as well as in the future short-term family housing sites because we’ve been told from the beginning that there won’t be designated play spaces.”

The problem of finding affordable housing for families doesn’t just lie with the city government. Last year, the city government put out a call asking local property owners to sign two- to three-year leases with the District for “bridge housing” for homeless families. NIMBYism presents another obstacle. Residents in Ward 3—the affluent, largely white area in Northwest Washington—are fighting tooth and nail to delay the construction of a proposed 50-unit shelter in the area. And even if a family is able to scrape together rent money themselves, credit scores, criminal background checks and simple discrimination can often stand in the way of securing a place to live.

The problem of a city’s homelessness does not start or end with that city’s government—it is a problem that everyone in the community shares responsibility for, from real estate developers, to schools and businesses, down to the white college graduate moving into what used to be a predominantly black neighborhood.

“We would love to see more landlords who are willing to work with our clients,” Jerrianne Anthony, the city’s Deputy Administrator for Family Services Administration, said. “It will take the entire community in order to reduce homelessness and make ending homelessness a reality. We’d like to see more assistance with employment services and programs that will allow our families to work on improving their credit and improving their income.”

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

Earlier this year, Washington made the cut for Amazon’s shortlist of 20 cities vying to attract the company’s new headquarters. The city government has ramped up its lobbying efforts, and launched an entire campaign to attract the tech giant. (Affordable housing activists in the area have answered the city’s campaign, called Obviously DC, with one of their own: Obviously Not DC.) In February, Mayor Bowser dined with Amazon executives at a Michelin-starred Italian restaurant in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in the northeast quadrant of the city.

One of the city’s proposed sites for Amazon’s new headquarters is in the Capitol Hill East neighborhood—directly on top of where D.C. General stands today. “Hill East, a quiet, traditional rowhouse community, sits at the eastern edge of the District, walkable to some of the most exciting and historic neighborhoods in the area,” the Obviously DC website reads.

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

The secrecy surrounding Washington’s Amazon bid has done little to quell speculation that it may be somehow related to the shelter’s closure. Amazon has come under scrutiny for asking cities across the country to compete against each other in a tax incentives bidding war in order to secure Amazon’s coveted second headquarters. The D.C. government signed a non-disclosure agreement with Amazon—as have the city’s neighboring counties in Maryland and Virginia that made the shortlist—over the proposed tax incentives they are offering the company.

Ed Lazere is a city council candidate as well as a longtime advocate around housing issues in Washington. He said that while the Amazon bid is not unprecedented in D.C. history, it’s much more blatant than past development deals. He called the Amazon bid the “Hunger Games of economic development.”

“They’re laying bare this practice that everyone knows happens, but has not happened as much in the open in the past,” he said. “In the end, they’re pitting cities and states against each other in a game that’s impossible for cities and states to win.”

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

It would make sense for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to locate his company’s second headquarters in the Washington area. For one reason, he’s planning to live here: In October 2016, Bezos anonymously bought the city’s former Textile Museum in the wealthy Kalorama neighborhood for $23 million in cash. Bezos plans to convert the 27,000-square foot property into a single-family residence, making it the largest home in the city. The renovation includes, according to Washingtonian, “191 doors (many either custom mahogany or bronze), 25 bathrooms, 11 bedrooms, five living rooms/lounges, five staircases, three kitchens, two libraries/studies, two workout rooms, two elevators—and a huge ballroom.” (At D.C. General, families don’t have the luxury of one personal bathroom, let alone 25.)

City officials have been adamant that there is no connection between the shelter’s seemingly abrupt closure and the Amazon bid. But even city officials admit that the timing doesn’t look great from the outside. “The optics are what they are,” said Chandra Washington, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development.

Even if the two are unrelated, the breakneck pace of development in Washington is inseparable from the plight of poor people trying to find a place to live.

“It’s becoming increasingly unaffordable, and developers are salivating over public land,” Larson said. “Amazon is just part of that. And who knows what’s happening behind the scenes, behind closed doors with the forces of development, because money really does talk. And I’m comfortable saying, whatever is happening, it doesn’t look good.”

On the day I spoke with Kanise Hill, she and her one-year-old daughter were wearing matching St. Patrick’s Day outfits. She was picking up diapers from a volunteer group that works in the shelter. Hill, who gave birth to her daughter while staying at the shelter, complained that the residents aren’t allowed to keep a mini-fridge or even a cooler in their rooms without a specific medical reason. Keeping breast milk cold apparently doesn’t qualify; Hill said she put her baby’s bottles outside her window in the winter to keep it cold. While she admitted D.C. General is a bad environment to raise a baby, she also wasn’t excited about the transition. “It’s going to be a nightmare,” she said.

The shelter’s enormity is both its biggest fault—it risks children slipping through the cracks—and, in less noticeable ways, also its strongest attribute. It means that programs—like the diaper donation, a makeshift clinic staffed by volunteers from Georgetown University, and the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project—can come to one site and provide services to a lot of people all at once. The hotels that serve as temporary emergency shelter, by contrast, have little extra space, and are dispersed along a busy avenue leading to the highway. While housing advocates agree that smaller, neighborhood-based shelters are best for families’ well-being, it also means the organizations that work in the shelters will face more logistical barriers meeting homeless families where they live.

The Playtime Project runs programs in three rooms at D.C. General: one for infants, one for elementary school aged students, and in the hospital’s former waiting room, a program for teenagers and preteens. For the parents, these programs offer a welcome break from childcare duties. And for kids, the programs are one of the few respites they have from the responsibilities of school and home life. The program takes the kids on field trips to Lazer Tag and to see Black Panther at the Air and Space Museum. On a recent night, volunteers brought in breakfast food, a toaster oven, and a griddle, and made brunch for dinner.

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

Iesha and her 10-year-old son have lived at D.C. General for almost a year, and are a frequent presence at Playtime. (She preferred not to give her last name for this story.) Iesha suffers from asthma, which has been made worse by the presence of mold at the shelter. She’s working to get a Rapid Re-housing subsidy, wherein the government assists homeless families with rent and other housing costs. The subsidies typically expire after one year, after which families have the choice of paying rent themselves, applying for a more permanent housing voucher (also known as Section 8 housing) or, in many cases, returning to the shelter system.

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

While she’s excited to move out, Iesha gave a more nuanced view of life inside D.C. General. She talked about how much her son loves programs like Playtime and Freedom School, and said it helps with his ADHD. On a recent night at Playtime, Iesha sat on a couch in the playroom while her son sat with two volunteers, carefully painting a wooden fish. He smiled at his progress.

Iesha took me up to the fifth floor of the complex to visit the room she shares with her family. She, her son, and her husband share a 12’x8’ room on the fifth floor of D.C. General. The only furniture in the room is the three metal-framed beds, and two wooden dressers. They have access only to a communal bathroom and kitchen, which serves breakfast and dinner to residents on weekdays. There is one window in Iesha’s room, obscured by an air conditioning unit.

Iesha piled black garbage bags of her family’s belongings near the door of her room in preparation for the move. She secured a Rapid Rehousing subsidy for an apartment on the far Northeast edge of the city, near the Maryland border, but wasn’t sure when she would be able to move in. She pulled out her phone and showed me a photo of her and her son holding a stuffed alligator.

“He might be a handful, but at the end of the day, that’s my baby,” she said. “At the end of the day, we’ve gotta survive.”

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

In April, the families at D.C. General noticed that signs had been put up along the fence bordering the shelter complex. The signs were from three construction and development companies, promoting their work on the site’s demolition and remodeling. One of the posters showed a slick mock-up of what the new site would look like, with crisp brick buildings, wide boulevards, a bike share station, and a fountain. None of the construction companies returned requests for comment, but one of them, McCullough Construction LLC, touts itself on its website as being “synonymous with luxury condos.”

The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development had originally planned a groundbreaking event for May 2 on the D.C. General campus, but canceled the event to “minimize disruptions” for shelter residents. “We are excited to see this project move forward as it will bring much needed affordable housing and retail to the Hill East neighborhood,” the office added.

I asked Iesha what she thought about the developers’ posters. “That hurt my feelings,” she said, and started to cry. “You claim you don’t have enough money to remodel this thing, but you’ve got enough money to knock this thing down and put something up here for the rich.”

Update: After publication, Mayor Bowser’s office sent the following statement:

“Since the start of her administration in 2015, Mayor Bowser has remained committed to creating healthier and safer short-term housing for families experiencing homelessness. Closing DC General is simply the right thing to do. Period. Her commitment to better serving these residents far predated Amazon HQ2 and will continue regardless of the outcome.”

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

Senior politics reporter at Splinter.