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Residents clash over plan to convert building into homeless shelter in Ward 2

The D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS) said it would be the only shelter in Ward 2, and the first of its kind in the District.

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A plan to turn George Washington University’s Aston Hall into a shelter for those experiencing homelessness is causing controversy in that community. 

On Wednesday, the Advisory Neighborhood Commission 2a held a special meeting to discuss the District’s plan to acquire Aston Hall from George Washington University. DHS would convert the building on New Hampshire Avenue into a non-congregate shelter for the medically vulnerable and those who can’t stay in other shelters.

The D.C. Department of Human Services (DHS) said it would be the only shelter in Ward 2, and the first of its kind in the District. The building is in an area of Foggy Bottom-West End that's home to at least four upscale hotels.

“This is an opportunity to serve folks that we have not been able to serve previously in our system, adult families. I have a 20-year-old daughter, but if I had a 20-year-old son and we experienced homelessness, there currently would not be an opportunity for us to come into a shelter together. We would have to be separated, and right now, this is really an opportunity to fill that gap,” DHS Interim Director Rachel Pierre said.

Residents had differing opinions.

“Are we going to be part of the problem, or are we going to be part of the solution?" one asked. "And this is one of the best solutions I have heard in decades."

Others brought up safety concerns.

"Prostitutes or drug addicts or drug dealers around there, you have to call the police. So if that starts happening, it’s going to start looking like the Chinatown Metro station," a member of the public said.

ANC Commissioner Joel Causey said he "seriously [questioned] the choosing of this location, based on the fact that it sits across the street from Michelin star restaurant. It's got another Michelin star restaurant around the corner, and another around the corner from that."

A resident retorted: “Eating at a Michelin star restaurant is not a human right. Housing, on the other hand, is.”

District Hospital CEO Nayan Patel asked "what safeguards is the shelter proposing in terms of making sure that those restaurants and hotels nearby are protected?"

"I've had a hotel where we had mentally ill people come in and set fire in the women’s bathroom and defecate in the lobby furniture," he continued.

DHS said it would take about eight weeks to convert Aston Hall once the sale goes through. The shelter would have a capacity for 190 residents and officials said medical services and meals would be available to those who need it.

Under the agreement, the city would buy the building for $27.5 million, with $19 million coming from the Department of Housing and Urban Development under the American Rescue Plan.

“There is a process that will take place where people will be admitted to this facility that largely revolves around medical need,” DHS Chief of Staff David Ross said.

If everything goes as planned, DHS would like to have people move in by October or November of this year.

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