The Walking City: The Geography of Homelessness in Washington, D.C.

In the Washington, D.C. metro area, the vast majority of services for homeless residents are located in the northwestern quadrant.  The most dense concentration of services is found in the downtown space framed by Rhode Island Avenue NW, Pennsylvania Avenue NW, and North Capitol Street NW.  As evident in the map, the Community for Creative Nonviolence (CCNV) Shelter at 2nd Street NW between D Street NW and E Street NW is a focal point — other shelters and services for the homeless radiate outwards to the north and west, becoming more scattered as the distance grows.

Many homeless residents, like Terry Lewis, migrated downtown from other areas for the services.  Here he reflects on his first experience with homelessness in the 1980s.

Lewis_Being Homeless in DC

Lewis, Terry. Interview by Mike Donovan. Digital Recording. Washington, D.C., March 2, 2013.

As property values downtown have skyrocketed in recent years, pressure from urban developers has spurred a shift in the geography of homeless shelters and services.  Some downtown establishments, such as the Franklin School Shelter,[1] have been shut down.  At the same time, new shelters, transitional supportive housing units, drop-in centers, and health clinics for the homeless have sprouted up in areas of the city where these types of services were not previously available – primarily in Northeast and Southeast  Washington, D.C.  For several reasons, these changes are a source of anxiety for many homeless residents who currently live downtown and rely heavily on the services that are located there.

In oral history interviews, homeless advocates Eric Sheptock and Robert Warren explain how the homeless navigate the landscape of social services.  Everyday tasks such as eating a meal, taking a shower, and getting to a job interview are complicated by not having a home, a place to store personal belongings, or an income to pay for public transportation.  These simple tasks can be extremely time consuming if a person must go to more than one or two places in the same day in order to meet his or her needs.  For these reasons, it is clear why some homeless residents value shelters and crucial services being clustered together in close proximity.

Sheptock_Daily Routine

Erick Sheptock. Interview by Stacie Nicole Simmons. Digital Recording. Washington, D.C., October 12, 2012.

Robert Warren_Transportation

Robert Warren. Interview by Alison Kootstra. Digital Recording. Washington, D.C., November 8, 2012.

The establishment of the CCNV shelter in a central location was intentional.  The founders and supporters of the shelter aimed to create a “model shelter,” where shelter and services for the homeless would be strategically consolidated in one place.[2]  CCNV members chose to close other shelter sites –613 F Street, 632 G Street, and others– because they believed that the Federal City College building, which CCNV would occupy, was better located and had the space to accommodate more beds and also a health clinic and a drug rehabilitation clinic.  During the court proceedings about the potential closing of the CCNV shelter in 1985, advocates and supporters wrote to the Federal Task Force on the Homeless in order to convince them that the CCNV shelter represented a “critical link” and a “centralized resource” for the homeless.[3]

As in the 1980s, homeless residents are struggling today to remain downtown, where they may sleep and access social services –as well as public services, such as libraries, public transportation, and parks.  For example, Nkechi Feaster, a member of Shelter, Housing, and Respectful Change (SHARC), argues that shelters and services for the homeless should remain where they are –in a central location– for several reasons: 1) The infrastructure is already there. 2).  Homeless individuals already know where and how to access services downtown  3).  Churches and volunteer organizations know where homeless residents congregate downtown and can reach out to them easily. 4) The homeless need to be able to walk to all the services that are available to them.

Feaster_Importance of Downtown

Nkechi Feaster. Interview by Anna F. Kaplan. Washington, D.C., March 4, 2013.

The year 2016 will mark a turning point for the CCNV shelter and possibly for the geography of homeless shelters and services in downtown Washington, D.C. as well.  The covenant that mandates that the downtown space where the CCNV shelter now stands must be used to serve the homeless will expire in 2016.  With the fate of the CCNV shelter and its 1,300 plus residents up in the air, it is unclear how the surrounding area might change.  If the CCNV shelter is closed and homeless residents are relocated to a place far from downtown, how will it impact their connection to this dense network of interrelated social services?

[1] Silverman, Elissa. “As Shelter’s Closing Nears, A Traffic-Halting March.” The Washington Post. September 26, 2008.

[2] Forgey, Benjamin. “Model Havens for the Homeless; CCNV’s Spruced-Up Shelter and a House for 12 Women.” The Washington Post. December 26, 1987.

[3] Helzner, David. Personal letter to Mr. Harvey Vieth.  July 22, 1985. Carol Fennelly Papers. George Washington University, Special Collections, Washington, D.C.