Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


When Arlington officials climbed aboard the campaign to eradicate local homelessness this October, you could sense a cautiousness when discussion turned to the desire long held by activists to create a year-round shelter.

Now it’s clear why. A new proposal to buy a building in the Courthouse neighborhood for said shelter and other uses has stirred a hornet’s nest of resistance and not-so-gentle rhetoric.

Arlington County Manager Barbara Donnellan in late-November announced she would recommend to the County Board that it acquire the seven-story Thomas office building east of Courthouse Plaza at 2020 N. 14th St. The move would create overflow space for the nearby government center and advance a “more vibrant mix of public, private and government development that will transform the Courthouse area.”

The building’s top floors could allow the “board to fulfill a commitment to the community to replace the inadequate Emergency Winter Shelter with a comprehensive, year-round center for accommodating homeless single adults,” the statement said. The center is envisioned with a separate entrance, elevator and stairwell.

Residents of the affected Woodbury Heights neighborhood have mobilized in opposition, worried over safety and property values. At least 50 have been writing letters, blitzing Facebook, meeting with officials and distributing fliers at the nearby farmers market warning, “Keep our block safe.”

January Holt, a seven-year Courthouse-area resident, told The Washington Post that officials “aren’t interested in those of us who pay taxes, only the 100 who are homeless.” Local condo resident Kenneth Robinson told AOL’s online Patch that “it was all done very secretly and very quickly with every effort to avoid any kind of public scrutiny.”

Anonymous patrons of the nearby Ragtime Café spoke of a “death sentence” for local businesses and likened the process to Arlington “declaring war on the community.”

Perhaps some should take a deep breath. Deputy County Manager Marsha Allgeier told protesters the plan has long been on the agenda and that when shelters have opened in other residential areas, initial fears arose but then eased.

Still, complaints will be listened to. Kathy Sibert, executive director of the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network, which for 20 years has run the temporary shelter a hundred yards away, told me she assured the protesters the new shelter would have 24/7 staff communicating with neighbors to address any concerns. She added that the Thomas building directly fronts on the entrance to police headquarters, and that her group works with police and the sheriff.

The clash seems to pit those who view the neighborhood as primarily residential and those who see it as a multi-use public-private nexus.

Board member Mary Hynes stressed to me that the county is “at the very beginning of a process that may take some time.” But acquiring the building “gives us options for the location of a new government center without interrupting operations,” she said. “Over the years, the board has a good track record of listening to those who live close to county facilities and working with them to mitigate concerns of all sorts.”

Similar protests took place when Arlington’s Human Services Department was consolidated in Clarendon in the ’90s, and the neighbors and the civic association were able to work with the county to create successful solutions, Hynes said. “I wholeheartedly support the creation of such a group for the proposed homeless services center.”

Late Tuesday night, the board gave it the green light.


Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at cclarkjedd@aol.com