The CCNV shelter was established in 1986 after a two and a half year struggle between housing advocates, including Mitch Snyder, and the Ronald Reagan administration. The activists fought for the property title of the current downtown site to be transferred to the city of the District of Columbia. After three hunger strikes, Snyder found unlikely allies in Congress – most notably Senator Mark O. Hatfield – who helped to break the deadlock and grant the city the property title and six and a half million dollars for renovations.
Through legislation the federal government transferred the property to the D.C. city government on July 7, 1986 with a covenant that stated that the property must be used for “programs providing shelter and related services for homeless individuals in the District of Columbia.” The code that empowered the federal government to transfer the property to the city specified that that the property must be used for public health purposes for at least thirty years. While the covenant in the deed mandates that proceeds from any future sale of the building must be used to support homeless services, it does not prohibit the city from selling the property after the 30-year period. In 1991, the federal government deeded to the city the parking lots behind the building under the provisions of the 1987 McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. The city is prohibited from selling this land until July 3, 2021.
In January 2013, the DowntownDC BID (Business Improvement District) initiated a conversation on the future of the Federal City Shelter. The organization has proposed selling the building, tearing it down* for private redevelopment, and using the proceeds to build permanent housing on the adjacent parking lots. While the proposal has some appeal to many residents in the shelter, it is unclear how many units would be built, what the conditions of occupancy would be for those units, and whether an emergency shelter would continue to exist downtown.
Based on its own estimates, the lots have a development potential of 350,000 square feet while the land encompassing the current building has a development potential of 500,000 square feet. Given that there are over 1,000 residents who now use the combined shelters on the site, it is highly unlikely that permanent housing could be built for all. Even if permanent housing is found for all the current residents, the tide of people losing their homes and in need of shelter continues to grow, as evidenced by the Franklin School Shelter closing. The dilemma facing Mitch Snyder in the 1980s continues to face activists seeking to end homelessness today — should we fight for shelters knowing that they are miserable places to live? As Snyder viewed it, the alternative was dying on the streets.
Residents and former residents of the shelter, drawing on their past experience, remain wary of the claim that the downtown business community has their best interests in mind.
Others view these potential threats as a moment of opportunity if the people mobilize and make their voices heard:
As July 7, 2016 is quickly approaching, the question remains: What will become of the shelter? The answer to this question will inevitably harken back to a much longer standing struggle over whose vision would gain precedence in shaping the future of the center of the city. Whose downtown will prevail?
What do you think should happen? Share your views in the comments below and engage in the Twitter conversation using the hashtag #CCNV2016.
*Note: The DowntownDC BID claims that the federal government constructed the Federal City Shelter building as a temporary structure during World War II. It argues that the building is unsuitable for rehabilitation and should be torn down. We have discovered no evidence to suggest that the building was designed to be temporary. In fact, the building was built as the headquarters for the federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation and it later housed the Securities Exchange Commission.
 Deed of property transfer from U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services to The Community for Creative Non-Violence (filed 19 April 1990), Washington, District of Columbia, Quitclaim Deed, Contract No. 04-DC-2045.