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 www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.
By Marc Fisher |
September 18, 2008; 9:49 AM ET
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