Arlington Board Approves Buying/Condemning Building for Homeless Shelter
County also wants the Thomas Building in the Courthouse community for office space.
The Arlington County Board early Wednesday unanimously voted to authorize a $25.5 million offer on the Thomas Building, 2020 14th St. North, and – if an agreement can’t be reached with the owner – to acquire the building using eminent domain.
The county wants to use the building for a year-round, low-barrier homeless shelter and office space, consolidating services housed in two other buildings that can be demolished to pave the way for the broader redevelopment of Courthouse Square.
The move was seen, and celebrated, by some advocates as a necessary step in the process of ending homelessness. But the businesses currently located in the Thomas Building will be forced to leave – some sooner, some later – and neighboring residents left frustrated that their concerns fell on deaf ears.
“They blew us off,” said January Holt, a Woodbury Heights resident who helped mobilize residents to speak out against the county’s action.
“They didn’t consider any other alternatives. They wasted hours of our time. This was just a dog-and-pony show. I’m disgusted by their actions.”
Emotions ran high during the two-and-a-half hours of testimony by Courthouse residents, who worried about their safety and their property values, and supporters of the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network, or A-SPAN, which manages the county’s services for the homeless.
Current and former homeless people, including a veteran who spent about a year in the current shelter, testified about the need for a year-round shelter. One woman talked about the years she spent working in a shelter in New York, where homeless people would insist on walking her home because she lived near bars frequented by college students and they were concerned for her safety.
Two children from Woodbury Heights, age 9 and 11, used a chart to show how they walk to the bus stop and, reading from a script, told the board that being around people who curse, smoke and drink could influence them to make poor decisions. One woman, in tears, talked about being sexually assaulted by a homeless person when she was younger and told the county she was tired of being a victim.
“Right now, everyone’s feeling very emotional. They feel blown off because the county moved forward with this,” A-SPAN Executive Director Kathy Sibert said afterward. “We will work with them to make this work.”
It was a repeated refrain as county board members tried to explain that this was the beginning of a long process that would have multiple opportunities for community input. Deputy County Manager Marsha Allgeier suggested involving the community in the design process and establishing a neighborhood advisory commission as possible ways the county could make the move work.
About 60 people spoke once the board arrived at the item at about 9 p.m. Tuesday. The board’s vote came shortly before 1 a.m. Wednesday.
“If you approve this, you will be sending the message that the Arlington Way has become synonymous with government arrogance, government overreach and government incompetence,” said Woodbury Heights resident Patricia Yeh.
“We can do better than this.”
It wasn’t lost on the opposition that the board delayed a controversial matter earlier in the evening on a single-family home because a few residents complained – yet as the night wore on it became clear elected officials had no intention in delaying the Thomas Building action.
“This is all for show,” one resident said under his breath as board members began making their cases for supporting the measure.
Board member Barbara Favola, in her final action before moving on to the state Senate, recommended the action.
“We can’t walk away from this need,” she said, as part of the remaining crowd began to grumble. “And we can’t arbitrarily decide this building isn’t a good building. We have to consider this for our comprehensive homeless services center. And we need to be ready to roll up our sleeves and make it work.”
Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman acknowledged that a lot of people weren’t going to believe that the county intended to involve the community more moving forward. Several board members said the residents' fears, anxieties and concerns were valid, but insisted that this would be in everyone's best interest.
Given the nature of the county’s plans, residents of Woodbury Heights tried to prevent the conversation from devolving into a neighborhood versus the homeless. Several asked the county at least to defer the matter until they could obtain more information.
But advocates of ending Arlington’s homelessness were out in full force, with some people signing up to speak as early as seven hours in advance.
“We are poised at a moment in Arlington's history where we have the resources to do what is right and what is just,” said the Rev. Tim Hickey. “The measure of the values of any community can be seen in how they treat one another, but most importantly, how they treat those most vulnerable.”
Deshaye Blackwell told the board that he’d never been arrested or abused drugs but found himself homeless and sometimes sleeping in the Rosslyn Metro station to avoid the cold or the rain. He’s currently staying in the county’s shelter – about a block away from the Thomas Building – and said next week he’ll sign a lease.
“A year-round homeless shelter will save a lot of lives, because it just saved mine,” he said.