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

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.

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