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‘It’s a mess’: Aston delays exacerbate housing struggles during hypothermia season

File Photo by Erika Filter | Staff Photographer
The Aston’s entrance on New Hampshire Avenue.

The District’s delayed opening of a shelter for medically vulnerable unhoused people in a former GW residence hall is exacerbating festering problems in D.C. housing, especially as winter temperatures drop and raise the risk of hypothermia for unhoused people, community leaders and advocates said.

The Aston’s shelter was originally slated to open last month but is now projected for the spring or summer of 2024 when it will house about 100 people matched to housing resources, mixed-gendered adult families and people with temporary medical conditions. Local housing advocates said the delay may form an affordable housing bottleneck as more people look for stable warmth during hypothermia season.

“We know that people are tragically likely to die on the streets in hypothermia season without having the shelter as a resource in the neighborhood,” said Courtney Cooperman, who works as a housing advocacy organizer with the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

In 2022, at least 77 unhoused people died in the District, three of whom died as a result of hypothermia. D.C. has issued 12 hypothermia alerts since Nov. 1, according to the District’s official emergency communications system.

D.C. Department of Human Services Chief of Staff David Ross said at a meeting last month that officials postponed the opening of The Aston for up to six months due to delays in finding a provider, an impending lawsuit that unnamed neighbors filed in an attempt to halt the conversion and an unclear construction timeline. Ross said the agency is still in contract negotiations to select a provider to oversee case management and building operations for the former GW residence hall.

Unhoused people have a right to shelter when the temperature drops to 32 degrees Fahrenheit or below, according to D.C. law. The District opened nine overflow shelters this winter and additional space at two year-round shelters, offering an extra 700 beds for people.

Wes Heppler, a staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said while The Aston was not scheduled to be used in the cold-weather housing plan, as outlined in the District’s Fiscal Year 2024 Winter Plan, the West End shelter would be a “first big step” in D.C. through the introduction of a noncongregate shelter, where residents are offered privacy in buildings like hotels or dorms.

“Those are all lost opportunities for people over the winter to get into a noncongregate shelter facility,” Heppler said.

The wait also comes after an unnamed group of local property owners filed a lawsuit in July attempting to block the conversion of the former residence hall into a shelter, which they later dropped. The District completed the purchase of The Aston in early August for $27.5 million, but the group filed a second lawsuit in late October in another attempt to block the conversion. That lawsuit is still pending.

Heppler said DHS and the District of Columbia Housing Authority have a “pattern” of falling behind on construction and renovation projects.

“It’s always a lengthy, delayed process to get new facilities built or to get existing facilities renovated,” Heppler said.

District officials in 2020 established the Pandemic Emergency Program for Medically Vulnerable Residents, or PEP-V, giving unhoused people with preexisting medical conditions the ability to isolate across four hotels during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The District announced it would phase out the program nearly a year ago, and Amber Harding, the executive director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, said the District plans to shut down the Capitol Skyline Hotel, the last remaining PEP-V shelter later this month, with some residents forced to leave as early as Dec. 1.

Between the end of PEP-V and the closure of two shelters undergoing renovation, the District was projected to lose 787 beds for unhoused people this year.

Harding said the roughly 80 people still housed in the Capitol Skyline Hotel will likely move into housing units using the District’s Housing Choice Voucher Program. She said the “vast majority” of Capitol Skyline residents are “somewhere in the housing process.”

“It’s a mess,” Harding said. “And it’s causing a lot of concern, a lot of problems that really could have been prevented.”

Harding said officials viewed November’s planned opening of The Aston, set for a month before the closure of the last PEP-V shelter, as a “safety net” for residents moving out of the Skyline Hotel as they waited to move into permanent housing. DHS officials are now telling Skyline residents to seek housing in shelters with minimal qualification requirements or seasonal shelters, which may impose shorter durations of stay or bag limits, she said.

Twenty-four Skyline residents are slated to move to 801 East, a low-barrier overnight shelter in Southeast D.C.

“They’re communal spaces, shared spaces,” Harding said. “And that’s where people are being told now that they have to go after living in non-congregate space for quite a while.”

The annual Point-in-Time Count of unhoused people, released in May, indicated homelessness has increased by 11.6 percent since last year. 2022 had the lowest count of unhoused people in 17 years.

“The [housing] resources were there, and the government didn’t move quickly to use those resources,” Harding said. “As a result, there are more people homeless than there should be right now because of the government’s actions.”

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About the Contributor
Erika Filter, News Editor
Erika Filter is a senior majoring in international affairs from Carson City, Nevada. She leads the Metro beat as one of The Hatchet's 2023-2024 news editors and previously served as the assistant news editor for the Student Government beat.
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