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PoP-Ed “Let’s Welcome All Neighbors” by Henri Makembe

by Prince Of Petworth February 16, 2017 at 12:30 pm 21 Comments

ward5 shelter rendering
Rendering of 1700 Rhode Island Ave, NE via DC Department of General Services

Henri Makembe is a ANC commissioner of SMD 5B03 and resides with his family in Brookland. When not conducting ANC business, he enjoys playing pick-up soccer and watching the English Premier League.

PoP-Ed. posts may be written about anything related to the District and submitted via email to princeofpetworth(at)gmail please include PoP-Ed. in the subject line.

My family and I are lucky enough to live in Brookland, but I know that this is not an opportunity available to everyone in our city. There is not enough affordable housing in the District. Family homelessness in DC is an acknowledged problem. And DC General is not an appropriate solution for families experiencing homelessness. Mayor Bowser is attempting to fix this problem by opening smaller housing facilities across the city. As many of you know, one of these facilities is slated to open in ANC 5B at 1700 Rhode Island Ave, NE.

Since the announcement of this plan, there has been a great deal of support for these smaller facilities as a way of combatting family homelessness.  Given the numerous reports of abuse at DC General and the tragic disappearance of Relisha Rudd, there is no doubt that the new facility will be a marked improvement for families currently residing at DC General. Advocates for people experiencing homelessness also agree that this proposed approach of smaller facilities, rather than one large shelter, will better support families.  As Councilmember Cheh shared in a letter to her constituents, “studies show that smaller shelters that allow for greater interaction between residents and staff make these traumatized individuals feel safer and more comfortable. And, as is true with healthcare and schools, the smaller the ratio between individuals and service-providers, the better people fare. And, finally, smaller sites mean greater potential for more community partners and non-profit relationships…Smaller shelters will allow us to diversify and take advantage of new and dynamic methods of providing human services..”

While canvassing our neighborhood to increase awareness about the proposed site, I have heard from many of our neighbors who are ready to welcome our new families with open arms. In fact, a couple of them shared their story of experiencing homelessness at some point of during their life. Others shared their experience hosting a relative going through a rough time with no roof over their head.  Many more shared their concerns about living paycheck to paycheck and reflected on the benefit of having such facilities for those who experience an emergency before that next payday. These stories made me proud to be a Brookland resident. As I said during  my campaign, Brookland has a history of community members coming together to support each other through good times and bad. After all, one of the reasons that we all chose Brookland as our home was due to the diverse, open community that we have worked to build.

However, since the location of the facility was announced, there also has been much discussion and criticism. Some of this criticism encompasses valid concerns about the height of the proposed facility, design aesthetics, parking, and a general lack community involvement in picking the site.

A more concerning undercurrent, however, are comments that reinforce the worst stereotypes about families experiencing homelessness. Some neighbors assert that a temporary housing facility for families will somehow lead to increased crime or plummeting property values. Others indicate the proposed location, near bus routes, grocery stores, a library, and park, is somehow unsuited for homeless families. Then there’s the false outrage about nearby liquor stores and a suggestion that families should use the alley to enter and exit the facility, so as to not increase neighborhood foot traffic.These types of comments do not represent Brookland. They do not represent the neighborhood we’ve built.

Let me be clear: DC’s rollout plan for the facility in our ward was not particularly well-executed.

The original location for this facility was scrapped after months of public discussion of that site, and DC officials held a meeting on a holiday weekend to discuss the new location mere days before voting to approve it. But this site is vastly preferable to the original site- for the families who need this housing– precisely because the original site was in the center of an industrial zone, and this site is in a vibrant neighborhood much more suited to residential use..

Even accepting as valid all concerns about process and design, I believe that building this facility at this site is the right thing to do. We can, and should, continue to work with DC government to ensure that our neighbors’ concerns are heard, that the facility meets the needs of its future residents, and that appropriate improvements in the surrounding area are put into place. But we should not fall to the easy answer of just saying “no” to building the facility. Rather, we should work together to ensure that Brookland can be a welcoming place, committed to helping our neighbors, recognizing that many of our neighbors have experienced or are experiencing housing insecurity, and fighting to ensure that all children have a safe place to sleep.
Join me in adding your name to support the building of the ward 5 temporary housing facility.

  • Anon

    Thank you Henri Makembe for sharing this sentiment. It’s very important that we, as residents of DC, are able to see and treat all people with the dignity that they deserve.

  • Ava16

    “Others indicate the proposed location, near bus routes, grocery stores, a library, and park, is somehow unsuited for homeless families.” Thank you!! Incorporating those with less means into a vibrant neighborhood with access to jobs, services, and businesses is the first step to helping homeless families get back on their feet and on the path to self-reliance.
    It disgusting to me that some people think the homeless and the poor should be stashed away.

  • GS

    DC General did not lead to Relisha Rudd’s disappearance. Employing a convicted felon like Kahlil Tatum led to her disappearance. Implementing comprehensive changes to hiring policies is not profitable to Muriel Bowser or any of her cronies. Instead, relocating residents to multiple ‘new’ facilities, without fixing the underlying problems, is the sure fire way to curry up favor with developers and line the pockets of our elected representatives. Mr.Makembe, as a fellow resident, I am confident that the citizens of D.C will not fall for your token acceptance of “..particularly not well-executed” plans. The citizens of D.C are more likely to endorse long term comprehensive solutions to homelessness rather than contrived and feigned concerns. Why hasn’t Bowser explored opening a shelter in Colonial village? Was it too close to home?

    • “Why hasn’t Bowser explored opening a shelter in Colonial village? Was it too close to home?”

      Additionally, Henri’s SMD, ANC5B05, is a mile from the Ward 5 site.

      • A

        He’s 5B03, which covers the site.

      • Tiffany

        Incorrect. Makembe’s SMD is 5B03, and the site is squarely in the middle of that SMD.

    • Anonymous

      The problems at DC General go way way way way way way beyond hiring practices, and many relate to the nature, size, and condition of the facility. Presuming your comment is in good faith, please go read some of the reporting about the facility.

  • B’land Neighbor

    I think the valid concerns of neighbors to this site fall into 3 categories:
    1. The selection process was as described above, which gives the impression of intent to deceive by the Council.
    2. The proposed building requires no fewer than 6 zoning variances, any of which would be fought/denied if we were talking about a development project that was supposed to bring retail/restaurants to the neighborhood.
    3. General dysfunction with DC’s homeless services. This dysfunction lends itself to the perspective that security will be deficient around the facility and crime will go up, which will also affect home values.

    As for what homeless people “deserve,” I think anyone would agree that an improvement over DC General is needed, and that access to transit, food, and green space is important. But having a process that can engender good will from the new neighbors is also important, and the District has failed miserably in that regard.

    • anon

      1. How much volleying is going to be done with the selection process? People didn’t like the environment around the original Ward 5 shelter and didn’t like the lease deal proposed for the site, so they mobilized against it. The same groups proposed alternate sites including this very one, and the Council stepped in to modify the Mayor’s plans to include this site, which is owned, instead.
      2. I’d personally be in favor of the variances regardless of the purpose, but the intended use of the site should make it more palatable. The residents at the shelter are unlikely to have cars, so the parking variance should be acceptable. It’s also worth noting the plans as proposed maintain the original historical structure, which is a huge win for those hoping to preserve historical character, despite the building not having any kind of historical designation that would require it.
      3. Henri’s letter cites the researched institutional advantages of small shelters. It’s not entirely a leap of faith to assume the services will improve if downsized and spread out to these new shelters. I’ll note there’s a similar shelter on the 2300 block of Rhode Island Ave. that hasn’t caused many, if any, problems.

    • jonah

      Can you share more about why crime might go up around the facility?

    • Anon

      That’s a whole lot of mental gymnastics you jumped through to try to convince others that you don’t simply want to live around poor people. I don’t think it worked.

  • Robyn Russell

    Henri, Many thanks for writing this important piece. As a fellow Ward 5 homeowner (Trinidad), I could not agree more that our communities should continue to support affordable housing and welcome individuals and families from all economic backgrounds. We can end homelessness, but only if we all support proven solutions such as community integrated supportive housing. Keep up the great work and thanks for sharing the link to write to our Councilmembers. I just wrote to Kenyan McDuffie and hope others will do the same.

  • Makembe’s neighbor

    What is unfortunate about this post is how it dismisses the valid concerns of the surrounding neighbors, the very neighbors Makembe is supposed to represent. The majority of neighbors agree that we need to help the homeless, and we are very comfortable with them being housed in our neighborhood. But, city planners are using “helping the homeless” as an overarching excuse for poor design and planning. If you oppose them, all of a sudden you’re just a NIMBY poor person hater. There are valid and grave concerns about the design of this shelter. This will be the tallest building from the Maryland line to 4th St on RIA, and it sits mere feet from small two story bungalows. The courtyard spaces on the property consist of a 13 foot space between a 4 story and 6 story building and another small space that could accommodate maybe 10 playing children, not 50+. The facade is a mockery of the historic building currently on the lot. There has been no attempt at merging these design plans to augment RIA Streetscape efforts in making RIA a “Main Street”. The city is asking for 8 significant variances to achieve their goals. The very neighborhood that is expected to support and house this shelter has been left completely voiceless in the design process. Even the small council-appointed neighbor advisory group has seen their concerns fall on deaf ears with little to no change in design made to address neighborhood concerns. At each community meeting, the neighbor’s concerns are just flat out dismissed, rather than any adjustments being made. We should support housing the homeless, but there needs to be consideration for those who live next door.

    • A 5B03 Constituent

      This is exactly right. The site, was rejected by a DC General services evaluation as too small for the proposed project. The D.C. Plan violated the law by not providing ANC 5B03 with timely notice and completely disregarded the concerns of the immediate neighbors. The plan is contrary to the comprehensive plan for Ward 5. An alternative, more appropriate site owned by D.C. On R Street in the rapid gentrifying Eckington neighborhood was rejected by McDuffie because he had “other plans” for the site. Makembe is supposed to represent his constituents of 5B03. Why isn’t he? And who is “Friends of Makembe?”

      • BDiddy

        DC General Services is one of the main DC agencies shepherding the project. I don’t think that they evaluated the site as too small..

        Also, DC Superior dismissed the Ward 3 notice case. Ward 5’s will likely be next.

  • Brooklander

    This is clearly an attempt on Commissioner Makembe’s part to counter the neighborhood petition that requests he present a resolution to the ANC to oppose the zoning exceptions. It’s time Makembe support his constituents instead of pushing his own agenda. Getting signatures from the entire city on this subject doesn’t replace the opinion of those in your SMD.

    • BDiddy

      There are many in the SMD who aren’t opposed. Just because some have signed a petition, doesn’t mean that all agree.

  • DC trainwreck

    Now, call me crazy, but I would have thought that an elected official would ask his/her constituents what they think, and take that into account. Writing to popville, however noble a forum, is exactly the opposite. I’d guess that this guy is one of those typical DC politicos who can’t be bothered to take care of his constituents and those he represents.

  • BLand BLand

    Henri, let’s not pretend like you have the moral high ground here. You’ve posted a petition that directly contradicts and challenges the legitimate concerns your constituents have repeatedly raised to the City and presented to you – i.e., force the city to do the best thing for those in need, not what amounts to political expediency, and if this site is the best after a proper process, then incorporate the residents’ concerns. No one is advocating to deprive people of services, and Ward 5 more than carries its share of the burdens of the city. Please don’t insult the people who are your constituents – you obviously don’t know them.

    Why are you undermining your constituents? Why did you host a meeting at a developer’s facility? Have you disclosed to these good residents that you’re a political consultant and provide political services to other politicians and lobbyist through your firm, Beekeeper Group? Do you have any clients at your Beekeeper Group who stand to benefit from the shelter at this site? Have you revealed all of the zoning exceptions that the city must obtain? Did you tell your constituents that you’re a partner at Beekeeper and explain what you do? If you’re going to preach morality and presume to have the moral high ground, then please pay the residents of the city and your constituents the respect of truly being transparent. May we have a list of all of your (Beekeeper Group’s) clients? That might be a starting point to earn some trust among the Brooklanders. If no list, then at least listen to your constituents and don’t undermine them for your own political and professional gain.

    You’ve either not been forthcoming with your constituents or you’ve just lied to buy time for you to get this petition from who knows in the district. ….hardly an honest approach.

    Got that client list yet? No? How about a list of the donors to Friends of Henri Makembe? No? Does that list include service or support from Beekeeper? Can we get some transparency here, Henri?

    No one denies that we, as a city, can do better for homeless families. I assure you, however, that we all agree that we can do better than politicians who don’t care to be transparent and honest with their constituents.

  • 5B03 Resident

    Henri’s unwavering support of this this shelter, and its excessive zoning violations, is a bit baffling. Does he have something to gain for helping the city push it through as is?

    This article was posted one day after his constituents delivered a petition to him asking for his help to get the city to revise the current shelter designs so that this structure will have less of an impact on the neighboring residents, be more aligned with the surrounding neighborhood, and hopefully help contribute to (or at least not hinder) the revitalization of the Rhode Island Avenue corridor. What does he do in response to this petition from his constituents? He writes a dishonest and inaccurate article demonizing the majority of the residents he is supposed to represent and starts a counter petition against their efforts. Instead of asking for a vote by the entire ANC 5B on the topic, he says he needs to wait until he has more information. In the meantime, he is soliciting the support he can’t find in his own neighborhood. Who’s interests does he represent? It certainly does not appear to be the constituents he took an oath to represent!

    One of most disappointing things about this article, and his petition, is its timing. Since Henri has not been in office for six months, it is still too early to circulate a petition to recall him from office. Maybe we can all look forward to another “PoP-Ed” written by Henri McDuffie once that petition is submitted.

  • observing the failure of the process

    Mr. Mekembe’s article regarding the proposed McDuffie Homeless Tower (Councilman McDuffie sited this plan on short notice without adequate review of the siteor alternatives) is a sad attempt to rewrite his abandonment of the residents of 530B during the the history of this ill-conceived transitional homeless project. TODAY MORE THAN EVER, FACTS MATTER!!!!.

    As little as one month ago Mr. Mekembe told 530B residents at a local meeting that he thought the design of this 70 foot tower placed near 2 story homes (and occupied by residents who have resided there for as many as 60 years), was “beautiful” and he was fully supporting the city’s plan. . In the last few weeks when his constituents realized the massive scale of this project, which was first announced near the end of December,. The overwhelming response of this exceptionally diverse and progressive community was supports a for a transitional homeless shelter at that site but not one which in compatible and to and integrated into the neighborhood. Currently the city’s plan for the McDuffie Homeless Tower requires the Board of Zoning, all appointed by the Mayor, to grant 6 variances or special exceptions if this this square peg tower is to fit into the very small square hole. (The Mayor wanted all sites to have a 30.000 square feet, the RI Ave. site has 12,000).

    These are not inconsequential modifications which are needed. to construct the McDuffie Tower. The city is requesting that the BOZ approve the tower proposed height which is 40 percent above the currently zoned commercial limit and permit the density to increase 37 percent. The Mayor initially wrote a letter to McDuffie in May prior to him designating this site asking him to delay until a survey of his proosed site could take place. Two city agencies advised the Mayor and McDuffie that the site was too small to fit the size and scale of a building to house 50 families. Mr. Mekembie failed to keep the community in the loop while he met with and communicated with the homeless advocates and city officials. The tower, which will have 25 full time staff members, will under the zoning code have to have at least 20 parking spaces. The city’s plan can only manage 3 spaces in an area with rush hours restrictions on Rhoide Island Ave., churches, and other commercial concerns which already reduce the limited parking spaces in the area.

    Within the last 2 weeks Mr. Mekembie has held 3 meeting and after each made pronouncements in his media world without ever stating that 80-90 percent of the residents do support a transitional homeless project but are strongly opposed to the city’s current plan as well as his inexplicable support for the city’s plan. . The city’s plan was drafted with the participation of McDuffie and Mekembe without keeping the neighborhood involved with the process. Mr. Mc Duffie has failed to participate in any community meetings in the last 3 months. Mr. Mekembe does not represent the majoprity of the community on this issue and has engaged in conduct as our ANC spokeperson that is damaging to our coummunity. So much for the “transparency” which is part of the pledge that Mr. Meembe ran on. Apparently being the ANC rep which he analogizes to being the “chef of the village” does not include representing the will of his constituents. In a meeting on 2/21 Mr. Mekembe and his wife shouted down a minister whose wfie has been resident of the community for 65 years. He who had become upset with what he perceived as an insult to his “pouring out his heart” on this matter. Despite 3 separate calls for a “comsensus vote” of the residents to oppose the current city plan which could then be forwarded to the larger 5B ANC meeting scheduled for the next night, 2/22. Mr. Mekembe, knowing how critical this resolution was for the next nights full 5B meeting ignored the call for a vote and adjourned the meeting. The residents supporting the resolution to oppose the current tower design far outnumbered the residents and and Mr. Mekembe. Two woman homeless. shelter advocates, non-residents of 530B, were permitted to speak at the meeting. Shortly after the meeting Mr. Mekembe was seen going into a local restaurant with these two homeless advocates. On 2/16 Mr. Mekembie announced a march from a nearby park to the shelter site where residents could ask questions of the city’s homeless officials for a hour prior to the Commission on Fine Arts meeting. Instead of particpating in his own march he was meeting with the city, archirtects and homelss advocates to discuss the shelter plans. Enough said about who he represents.

    On 2/22 Mr. Mekembe drafted up his own coplicated resolution and presented these 6 or 7 resolutions to the entire ANC 5B membership. The residents of ANC 530B and those at the meeting had never seen or heard about his “plan.” The four other ANC members- 2 of who had been in attendance at the raucous, undemocratic meeting the night before, refused to “second” any of his “resolutions.” Mr. Mekembe was clearly flustered and surprised that his manipulation of the ANC process did not sit well with his more experienced counterparts or the residents in attnedence. Apparently he knows better than his constituents on what resolution better serve his interests and he does not believe in representative democracy.

    In a meeting on 2/16 the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA), an independent agency, refused to approve the city’s design plan because of the massive scale of the project It stated that the transitional housing project should ” convey a character that is more residential and institutional.” With specific reference to the Rhode Island Ave. site, the Comm. on Fine Arts stated it would not approve the design,; “there may be a mismatch between between the size of the program and the constraints of this small site”. The CFA members observed that the “the proposed massing is too tall for its context”, appears bulky and overwhelms the (the adjacent hostoric structure).” The planned recreational outdoor area for the 50-60 children and 80 adults was “small and awkward proportioned and which would be shaded by the building at all times.”!!

    As Carl Sanburg said may years ago: If the facts are against you, argue the law, If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell (or in Mr. Mekembe’s case — ignore the wishes of your community or disparage the motivations and the values of the residents of your ward).


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