By Christy Ulmet
With early voting in the District getting underway on Oct. 20 and the general election drawing near, the District’s mayoral candidates struggled to define themselves on a range of issues, including city responses to homelessness, during a lively debate on Oct. 15.
The face-off was streamed online while tornado warnings for the DC area flashed on viewers’ screens.
NBC4 government and politics reporter Tom Sherwood, who was co-moderator with Washington Post columnist Colbert King, asked city council member and front running candidate Muriel Bowser (D) about her stance on shelters.
“Your campaign slogan is ‘All eight wards.’ Would you put homeless shelters in all eight wards?” Sherwood asked.
Bowser responded that every ward should share responsibility for how the city houses its homeless families.
City council member and Independent candidate David Catania agreed with Bowser’s ideas, but quickly added that there would be more housing for the homeless had Bowser not stood in the way of renovating the Hebrew Home for use as a family shelter in her own ward in 2011.
Bowser tried to dodge the bullet by accusing Catania of being uninformed on the issue, stating that he didn’t understand what’s best for the city’s homeless. She said that smaller shelter facilities, which could operate as transitional housing, were preferable to large structures like Old Hebrew Home.
A third contender, former city council member Carol Schwartz, who, like Catania, is running as an Independent, said it would be irresponsible to close the District’s family shelter right away with winter right around the corner, calling the action “dangerous.”
The contentious topic of sheltering homeless families was prompted by DC Mayor Gray’s proposal to close DC General, according to Sherwood.
Gray, who Bowser defeated in the April Democratic primary has called for the closing of the facility. But Gray’s plan to move families out of the shelter and into affordable housing has not moved fast enough to empty the shelter. The administration’s newly-released multimillion dollar proposal to replace the large shelter with six smaller facilities raised a number of questions at an Oct 14 hearing ( please see brief page 3).
Deteriorating conditions at the 288-unit shelter facility located in a former hospital building made headlines last winter. The March disappearance of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd with a shelter janitor added to concerns about the safety of the shelter. The janitor was found dead of an apparent suicide. The child is still missing.
Bowser agreed that the DC General shelter is not in a condition that is suitable for raising a family but noted that she would not support canceling the contract with Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness to close the shelter down because “there is no one to step into the breach,” or fill the gap in housing.
Homeless families overwhelmed the city’s shelter system last winter and city officials are now bracing for another influx, with hypothermia season beginning Nov. 1. A total of 840 families are anticipated to need shelter during the coming cold months, up from 723 last winter, according to the official Winter Plan, approved by the city’s Interagency Council on Homelessness.
The current administration has failed to take the actions needed to make sure the city’s poorest residents have a roof over their heads, said Catania.
“It’s time we stop breaking promises. It’s time we start keeping them,” he noted.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 22 edition of Street Sense.