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Why Do D.C.'s Homeless Sleep In A Historic Landmark?

The way things have long worked at the Franklin School, the stately Civil War-era building that bizarrely serves as Washington's main shelter for homeless people downtown, if you're not there to claim your bed by 5:30 p.m., you're on the street that night. Rules are rules.

Now there's a new wrinkle at Franklin: If you miss the cutoff time, your bed just might be dismantled and permanently removed, its parts moved behind the locked door to the shelter's third floor, the part of the building I was not permitted to see on a recent visit.

This grim game of musical beds is designed not to torment the homeless but to move toward Mayor Adrian Fenty's goal of shutting down the shelter by Oct. 1 -- a plan the D.C. Council blocked Tuesday, voting to prevent any closing until Fenty proves he has alternative housing.

For those such as Eric Sheptock, who has called the shelter at 13th and K streets NW home for three years, Fenty is a turncoat, reneging on his promise to maintain a downtown facility for hundreds of homeless men who roam the city's center. But City Administrator Dan Tangherlini argues that the gradual shutdown of Franklin is the most humane course, that "it's finally time to close a terrible place."

The dispute over Franklin has split Washington's advocates for the homeless, sparked street protests and renewed the debate over whether public buildings should be sold for private use. Despite the strong view among some homeless men that Franklin should be maintained for their use, there is general agreement that the building is a pit -- a sad, poorly maintained, ridiculously expensive symbol of the city's failure to make good use of its resources or to do right by the homeless.

There's also consensus that in a perfect city, homeless people would not be warehoused in dank dormitories with few services; instead, they would be given real apartments, with medical, mental and addiction care and the job training and counseling that could put them back among the self-sufficient. Although Fenty says this is his goal, neither the council nor most advocates for the homeless believe the city is anywhere near that point.

So: Should Franklin be shut down, and if it does close, where would its 300-and-dwindling nightly residents go?

Faced with being sent to a city shelter on the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast or to transitional housing that gives residents only six months to find a job, some men prefer to stick with the hell they know.

"You have a lot of homeless services close by here," says Sheptock, a dynamic, wiry 39-year-old who argues that it's good for the men and the city to keep the homeless near soup kitchens, health clinics and counseling meetings.

Even those who are eager to get out of Franklin say it's essential to maintain a "low barrier" shelter downtown -- a place where no questions are asked, no identification is required.

"Of course, I'd rather be in my own apartment," says D'Juan Bean, 44, president of the Committee to Save Franklin Shelter. "But this is a well-run place, and if it had AA meetings and job training, it could really make a difference for many of the men."

Tom Howarth, who runs the McKenna Center, a Catholic facility for the homeless in the Sursum Corda area of Northwest, agrees that Franklin should close eventually but says shutting it down before alternative housing is available would tell the homeless that "downtown is too good a location for people like them, that we want you out of sight and out of mind."

Tangherlini says the mayor originally believed that, too -- until he saw how San Francisco and New York have provided more permanent housing. It's a mistake to "focus on a building and geography," the city administrator says. "What we've been doing for 30 years isn't working. You can in fact cure this problem for some people."

The District plans to relocate Franklin residents to their own apartments, transitional housing and other shelters. Tangherlini says that the city will add emergency shelter beds elsewhere but that shelters are not the answer, and that downtown is not necessarily the best place for the homeless.

"We haven't been asking ourselves, How do we best help these people?" Tangherlini says. "We took 10 people off the median strip of I-395. They felt very secure there; they had tents, a community. A year later, all 10 are in apartments, and not one has asked to go back to the median strip. A lot of this is fear of the unknown. We've been condemning people to the streets because we didn't offer them the care they need and a place to live."

Given Franklin's long, pathetic history, the homeless and their advocates are right to be skeptical of the city's plans. The District has pumped huge piles of money into the building -- $3 million for a spiffing up of the exterior in the 1990s, a couple of million in infrastructure repairs last year, and $500,000 this year to buy developer Herb Miller out of a failed deal to turn Franklin into a hip hotel.

Is the District's real goal to empty out Franklin to sell it to the highest bidder? After all, it is a primo location and a spectacular piece of architecture. Tangherlini says no; the building will "essentially be mothballed."

He concedes that the city has wasted millions on "episodic, non-planned, backed-into investment" in Franklin. "That's money we lost to providing real services to the homeless."

The homeless ought not be guaranteed a downtown location; the city should make that land available to generate tax revenue. But the District has a long way to go to convince the homeless and those who care about them that tax dollars will be spent on effective alternatives to warehousing in a historic landmark.

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" at

By Marc Fisher |  September 18, 2008; 9:49 AM ET
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Might as well use the building for something. If it really is "historical" the hysterical people will fight for the next 30 years to keep the building from being torn down and replaced with something that would actually be nice to use.

Posted by: DC Voter | September 18, 2008 12:25 PM

Although the decision to close Franklin may be a necessary evil, I don't think it should take place until all factors have been looked at again and again. I believe that the Mayor is premature in his decision. I think he should make sure that those who are utilizing the facility have other housing options available to them before the closure is complete. I see this as a bigger problem if hundreds of men are to be displaced with no where to go and no place to lay their heads. I see this being an even bigger problem for the population of the downtown area, most of whom already have issues and problems with the homeless population as it is. I think that whatever the final outcome is that the Mayor needs to seek more support, input and suggestions from those that are going to be directly or even indirectly affected by this decision to close.

Posted by: reflekshun | September 18, 2008 2:37 PM

The council came through. Franklin Is saved (For Now).
On september 16th, the DC Council held its first legislative session in 2 months, having just returned from recess. I was quite pleased to see the interest that they have taken in the issue of homelessness. ((They postponed the beginning of their recess in July by 2 days in order to create emergency legislation around the transfer of the Gales School Bldg. to the Central Union Mission (C.U.M.).)) Then, as they returned, one of the items on their legslative agenda was the impending closure of the Franklin School Shelter. And so their recess began and ended with the creation of emergency legislation for 2 homeless shelters.

The day began with a large rally that was orchestrated by Empower DC, a non-profit that does grassroots organizing around the issues that affect everyday people. It highlighted issues related to homelessness, affordable housing, using public land for community needs rather than giving it to private developers who can make a profit off of it and labor unions. There were at least 200 people at the rally, which was held in front of the John A. Wilson Bldg. (City Hall).

Many of my friends and supporters of the homeless community demonstrated inside of the Council Chambers (which is not allowed) and got thrown out. Bless their souls. A reporter from the Washington Examiner newspaper asked me why only those who were not homeless were acting up and not the homeless themselves, being that the demonstration was for the homeless. I explained to him that I was reporting for Street Sense, a street newspaper about the poor and homeless of DC and couldn't afford to be thrown out. I failed to explain what is, no doubt, an even more important reason: I, being one of the primary homeless advocates fighting to keep Franklin open as a shelter, needed to be there as the Council decided on the issue. It wouldn't have looked right for me to be absent. As it turned out, many of them looked my way as they discussed the issue of Franklin.

The Council was quite well-informed on the issue of homelessness. They seemed to understand that anyone can become homeless. Councilman Harry Thomas, Jr. told of an ANC commissioner who became homeless, along with his family. Councilpersons Carol Schwartz and Phil Mendelson realize that the homeless choose to be located Downtown. I even sensed a slight implication by them that it would be better to close the 801 East (MLK, Jr.) Shelter first, especially since the mayor claims to want to move away from large shelters and 801 east is larger than Franklin while also being in a location that is unpopular to the homeless.

Chairman Vincent Gray pointed out that he had sent a letter to the mayor 34 days prior to the session and that the mayor had not responded to that letter, which explained that the mayor had broken campaign promises and that it was unwise to close Franklin Shelter given the circumstances. (The article in the Washington Post on the following day pointed out that the mayor failed to respond to the Council actions with a press conference, which he normally does after a legislative session. The mayor is becoming even more secretive than usual as he deals with this possible shelter closure.)

The council voted 12 to 1 to keep Franklin open until the mayor meets a long list of demands. Among those demands are the following. He must:

1 -- house at least 300 men in Permanent supportive Housing
2 -- show that they are stable and will not lose their housing
3 -- show that they are receiving adequate social services related to their physical and mental health as well as drug treatment and employment services
4 -- provide paperwork that gives the names of all of those who've been housed and the locations of their housing
5 -- provide a report that shows the varying levels of shelter usage during different times of the year, the number of homeless people in the city and the current shelter capacity
6 -- submit in writing an updated report containing all of the above information and a renewed request for closure before closing the shelter.

The only abstention was by Phil Mendelson, but for a good reason that I fully agree with. We needed 9 votes to make the legislation veto-proof. We also needed this legislation passed immediately. Both needs were met, in spite of the lone abstention. I'm inclined to believe that it was planned that way. Great.

Mr. Mendelson voted against the bill due to the fact that he wanted stronger legislation that takes some power from the mayor and gives the Council and the ICH (Inter-agency Council on Homelessness) more oversight of the homeless shelters. He feels that the mayor is a dictator of sorts who rules by fiat (mandate). I agree. I also agree with him that we should get more out of this deal than to just keep a homeless shelter from closing. We should also address the extensive powers of the mayor that essentially make him a brat. Mr. Mendelson and Carol Schwartz emphasized that the Council is a branch of government that is separate from but equal to the mayor's administration. The Council asserted its power. Great. In essence, the entire Council was on our side. The single abstention openned the door for the Council to begin an agenda of Government reform. Way to go!!!!!

The council acted in unity as they made a concerted effort to put the brakes on the mayor. What was more surprising than the 12 to 1 victory was the fact that the entire Council chose to break ranks with the mayor. Many of those whom I spoke to never expected Muriel Bowser to break ranks with Mayor Fenty. She got in on a special election, due to her friendship with him. However, she doesn't owe him anything. She made that point on Tuesday. Good job.

As it turns out, the mayor has 10 days to veto the legislation. He won't win if he does use his veto power. Unfortunately, he can still have beds dismantled during that time. When the Council overrides his veto on the 26th, he'll have to have the beds that were disassembled reassembled. Sending the legislation to him is just a formality.

Posted by: Eric Sheptock - Resident | September 18, 2008 4:31 PM

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