MVSNA/DNA joint meeting Q&A recap

I previously recapped the panelist discussion from the recent special joint MVSNA/DNA meeting on Homelessness and Housing issues. You can reference that recap [here].

The Q&A discussion between the community members and panelists also deserves a recap. I’m new to the area and am still absorbing the challenges for our community. I always learn much from the questions raised by experienced residents. Among the questions were:

  • Homeless impact on the libraries
  • Pathologies of the homeless
  • Panhandling
  • Locations of shelters
  • Is the homeless ‘burden’ really being spread across the district
  • Lack of communication with residents
  • Perceived busing of the homeless to downtown

Homeless impact on the libraries: Due to the lack of day service centers for the homeless many homeless residents will congregate at libaries such as MLK Library during the day. The Department of Human Services feels that the scattered site housing first approach will help mitigate this. Large meal and mattress shelter facilities are often only open 7pm to 7am leaving their members to fend for themselves during the day. Housing First provides a home and local services.

Pathologies of the homeless: A community member raised concerns that while they do have compassion for the homeless they are worried that individuals with pathologies such as drug addiction, past criminal sexual offenders behavior are allowed to roam the streets unchecked due to their homelessness. For instance, a sexual offender would typically need to register their address into an offender database, notify neighbors of a community when moving in and stay a certain distance from schools. The perception is that the homeless sex offenders skirt by under the radar and avoid these same hurdles. The panel took the angle in their response that the pathologies you find in the homeless are also found in society at large. While true I’m not sure it adequately addresses the sex offender tracking issue.

Panhandling: I found the topic of panhandling to be the most interesting of the evening. Chet Grey wanted to stress to everyone that while many chronic homeless in the downtown do panhandle that conversely many panhandlers are not homeless. Mr Grey gave examples of panhandlers that make $100/day. Such individuals have perfected techniques to earn a living through panhandling. One panhandler sells free Smithsonian maps for $1 to tourists. Others position themselves near popular news stands to get change from pedestrians who buy newspapers. He told a story of one panhandler he knew on a first name basis who was not homeless but used his earnings to buy crack. A member of the audience chimed in that the tourist traffic in the downtown is a magnet for panhandling and that he’s seen a tourist give a $20 bill to one before. While residents who see the same panhandlers on the same corners everyday do the smart thing and donate to an organization rather than a beggar – tourists do not. I myself have seen the same pan handler near my office in Rosslyn for years. Some days he even has a cell phone that he hides in his hat…

Location / Downtown Burden / Communication: Residents expressed concerns about the perceived clustering of homeless shelters within blocks of the intersection of Mass Ave and H Street NW. The Mitch Snyder Shelter at 2nd and D streets is privately run and has over 1000 beds. The Central Union Mission’s relocation to the Gales School also places it nearby. Rumors in the Washingtonpost earlier this year also suggested new shelters could open at 4th and L Streets NW as well as 2nd and Mass Aves NW. The idea of four shelters clustered so closely made residents uneasy. The response from the panel was that the WaPo rumored new locations were erroneous. The Gales School had previously been a shelter and plans to reuse it in that capacity had been public for five years. What I inferred from their collective response is that the downtown does presently have a concentration of shelters. While new downtown shelters are not part of the plans we’re more likely to see downtown shelters downsized over time rather than being outright relocated to other parts of DC. The commitment to permanent supportive scattered site housing will gradually shift the burden out of the downtown. Market forces (read: real estate prices) will naturally make other parts of the city better candidates for these housing sites. MVSNA president Cary Silverman took a moment to recap the anxiety that residents experienced due to the WaPo rumors surfacing at the same time as the public announcement that the Central Union Mission would be relocated to the Gales School. It was agreed that more ongoing communication between neighborhood associations and homeless service/housing entities would be mutually beneficial.

Perceived busing of the homeless to downtown: Residents inquired about the heresay that other parts of the city bus their homeless downtown. Chapman Todd fielded this question. He cited an example of homeless busing related to the closure of the Randall School Shelter in SW DC. This shelter was closed several years back with many of it’s homeless shifted to another shelter south of the Anacostia River. Many of the homeless that stayed at the Randall School frequented the downtown during the day (some for jobs). Once shifted south of the Anacostia a bus service run by Park and Recs(?) was established. This bus service was meant to return the homeless to their shelter south of the river rather than bus homeless downtown. Of course bus trips by nature are round trips…

I’m particularly glad to hear the rumor of a new homeless shelter at 4th and L Street NW is false. I just could not see that as a compatible use with the one long awaited downtown grocer (CityVista Safeway) only a 1/2 block away.

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