By Claire Sloan
The historic Federal City shelter needs to be transformed into something that homeless people and advocates alike can be proud of, including well-maintained permanent low income housing, said Cheryl K. Barnes of the Interagency Council on Homelessness.
“Homeless people go through a lot of crap,” Barnes said in a meeting at City Hall on Oct 8. “But it doesn’t have to continue if we all see the same vision.”
This meeting marks the beginning of deliberations by a city task force, specially appointed to help chart the future for the sprawling facility before the 2016 expiration of a federal requirement than the building be used for homeless services.
The group is expected to send its recommendations for the shelter to the mayor in six months. The shelter, which houses 1350 people on any given night, is often known simply as CCNV, the initials of the Community for Creative Non-Violence, an anti-war and anti-poverty group that turned the former federal college building into a shelter in the late 1980s.
Barnes shares a vision with many others that homelessness will be ended in her lifetime. She was formerly homeless and spent three years at the shelter when CCNV’s charismatic leader, the late Mitch Snyder was still alive and helping to run the program there. The homeless advocates said they are aware of the development pressures on the property, located on prime real estate not far from Union Station.
“Nobody wants a shelter in their neighborhood. There are two sides to the story,” said Shacona Ward, a resident of the CCNV shelter.
Both sides of the story are represented in the task force which includes leaders of organizations such as the Department of Behavioral Health, Miriam’s Kitchen, DowntownDC Business Improvement District and Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.
The interests of the shelter’s neighbors should not be the highest priority, said Eric Sheptock of Shelter Housing And Respectful Change. Some individuals give the entire homeless population a bad name. Moving them to another part of the city will not solve the problem, he said.
“There are people who are mentally ill, and are homeless, take their meds and don’t act crazy,” Ward said in reference to the variety of individuals within the District’s homeless population.
The task force does not accurately represent the homeless community because few of its voting members have actually experienced homelessness, said Reginald Black, a Street Sense vendor and homeless advocate.
The task force’s mission represents a combination of hopefulness and discontent. The dichotomy was apparent to meeting attendee Amna Abdelgader, a University of Maryland student and friend of Sheptock’s. The sense of urgency to help the homeless was detectably different for those representing the neighborhood and those representing the homeless.
“There’s a lot of opportunity for doing something creative and meaningful in terms of quality homeless services,” said City Councilman Jim Graham.
Barnes, Sheptock, Black and many others share in Graham’s hopes for the future of the shelter. But their great challenge will be to come to a consensus within six months on what must be done to the shelter.
The task force must determine how to house 1350 people while the shelter is being repaired or remodeled.
“Any plan to house less than 1350 people is a conversation stopper,” Sheptock said.
The next meeting will be held at the CCNV allowing shelter residents to easily attend the meeting and give comments at the end. It will cover all the legal implications of making any changes to the shelter, on a date to be determined, Graham said.