Homeless men displaced by September’s Franklin School Shelter closing may have a place to go before winter sets in if Councilman Marion Barry has his way. Barry is spearheading the Downtown Shelter Bed Emergency Act of 2008, which calls for a low-barrier shelter equipped with 150 beds. He proposed the act on Oct. 7 after Mayor Adrian Fenty decided to close the shelter despite opposition from the D.C. Council. Over a month later, the legislation has not been voted on. According to Mafara Hobson, Fenty’s communications director, the administration intends to provide permanent housing for the men from Franklin.
Andy Silver, a lawyer with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said Barry’s legislation is needed because Franklin was the last low-barrier shelter for men in the downtown area “Anybody who was in need could come in and stay for the night to get out of the cold weather as opposed to a temporary shelter transitional program where you need six months’ ‘clean’ time or some other requirements before you can go in,” Silver said. If the legislation passes, the new 150 beds would accommodate only half of Franklin’s 300-bed capacity. Silver said it’s not certain the smaller facility will be sufficient. “You open up some capacity downtown and then we’ll wait and see what the numbers are of people who go in,” Silver said. “If you open up 150 beds and all 150 are full and people are turned away, then obviously you need to provide more shelter beds.”
He added that, if only 100 beds are used, then plans to reduce the shelter’s capacity can be made. Councilman Jack Evans, who serves much of the downtown area and had committed his support to 150 beds there, now opposes Barry’s plan. The homeless population is concentrated in the downtown area, according to Silver. He added that the population’s mental health problems have prevented them from going to shelters across the Anacostia River. “If you’re struggling to do your daily basics — things you have to do in order to survive, it’s going to be too much for you to make it over to find the shelter,” Silver said. Xavier Norris, who volunteers for City Year, a non-profit community service organization, said he supports Barry’s proposal because there aren’t enough shelters available anymore. “Homelessness affects a lot of areas in the community around D.C.,” he said. “It’s good to open up another shelter, because not everyone can fit in the ones available.” Thomas Whitmer, a recovering drug addict and alcoholic who has been sober for 21 years, said the District should assist the homeless population. “With the combination of mental illness and alcohol, these people don’t have a chance,” Whitmer said. “They need help. And that, I don’t mind my tax dollars paying for.” If the legislation does not pass, Silver said people who found aid in the low-barrier Franklin shelter will be left out in the cold and the success that the old shelter started will be lost. “One of the things that was so great was that there was a population of people who, when they opened Franklin, were willing to go for the first time in a shelter and get connected with services