Humanity First, Growth Second

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By Maya Martin

Education is paramount in any child’s journey through life. It is an essential pathway to success and improving our education system for all families is something I have fought for my entire career. Its promise is invaluable but is also just one of many factors that ensure children and families can lead full and productive lives. Equally critical is providing all families with a safe place to lay their head at night. Housing insecurity and homelessness deeply affect a child’s ability to learn and grow in the classroom. When they aren’t able to get proper sleep, eat a good meal, or live in a place that is clean and safe, they aren’t bringing their best selves to school. How can we ask them to focus, to perform on their various assignments and tests, to truly engage with their learning, if they don’t have the basic support we know they need?

In January, Mayor Bowser moved up the timeline for demolition of DC General--a shelter that houses more than 200 families--with the goal of getting residents into updated and better maintained facilities in more areas of the city. While most DC residents are in strong support of the closing of DC General, the timeline of this plan is a major cause for concern as the next steps for many families living in the shelter are still unclear. Due to delays in construction, there is not enough space for all of the residents that would need to be relocated for replacement shelters. The plan to close DC General included six additional shelters across the city. Right now, only one of the replacement shelters is on track to be completed by the fall. In the best-case scenario, two more could be completed. The motels that would serve as temporary housing are not only extremely expensive for the district to provide but are also often in extremely poor conditions.

The demolition also poses serious environmental hazards due to risk of exposure to lead and asbestos, threatening many DC families living as close as 250 feet away. The resulting side effects are irreversible, with particularly dangerous implications for pregnant women.

Earlier this week, Council member Trayon White proposed emergency legislation to stop the demolition until the city has relocated all of its residents to the new shelters. After deliberation, Councilmember T. White’s original legislation did not pass. Instead, the City Council unanimously voted to require environmental impact reporting requirements. This doesn’t change the environmental risk that residents face or address the problem of displacement.

We must find a solution for the families at risk of losing shelter and having their health put in jeopardy. The challenges the residents of DC general face are immense, and they need our help. One of our parents recently spent months moving from motel to motel. Her daughter, then in third grade, missed half of the third quarter and half of the fourth quarter because of long travel times. Even when getting up extra early, she would have to wait for the shuttle bus, transfer to the trains--sometimes taking up to two hours to get to school--and then have to travel to work. Her daughter’s teachers reported that her behavior changed: she stopped showing interest in activities. After explaining the situation, the school got involved by providing access to after school and summer programs and referred her to an organization that could help with case management, eventually placing her in DC General. Here, she received the support she needed from caseworkers who were able to help her secure her own apartment. The motels she stayed in as temporary housing didn’t have any programs to help out residents who were determined to find a better solution.

This parent is not alone in her experience: so many people facing homelessness are simply asking for the city to provide a clean and safe place to stay and a bridge to independence. With the closing of DC General, we cannot leave those families behind, without resources, or in danger of serious damage to their health. As the importance of keeping families together has become a focal point in the national conversation, we as a city must step up and take care of all of the basic needs for our residents and be a leader in addressing our pressing housing crisis. Let’s put families first and make sure replacing DC General doesn’t increases the challenges for our fellow Washingtonians, but instead supports their path to success.