House of Ruth Shelter Draws Ire of Northeast Residents

Posted May 11, 2004 at 2:01pm

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Renée Parker sat huddled under an enormous elm tree in front of the Sherwood Recreation Center at 10th and G streets Northeast, her eyes bloodshot, a few possessions at her side.

Parker, who is addicted to crack cocaine, was waiting to be admitted to the House of Ruth, an emergency shelter for homeless women that stands just across the street from the rec center. It would be her first night back at the shelter, she said, that helped her to get her life back together when she was a resident there for a month and a half in the late 1990s.

But while House of Ruth offers women like Parker a chance “to restructure [their] lives,” not everybody in the neighborhood is pleased with its impact on the surrounding area, which in addition to the rec center includes the soon-to-be reopened Prospect Learning Center, a school for children with special education needs.

Several residents say the shelter has long been a source of concern, with some of the women — all of whom must leave the premises from 9 a.m. to about 4:30 p.m. each day — alleged to have participated in everything from loitering in neighbors’ yards and public drinking to prostitution.

“I do have a concern that you have a homeless shelter next to a newly opened residential facility that is next to a school,” said Drew Ronneberg, who said that by 7 a.m. most mornings the women could be heard shouting obscenities at one another.

Resident Charles Hudman said he frequently sees “groups of them sitting along people’s walls,” including his own, with “bags of alcohol.” Just the other day, he said, one House of Ruth resident threw a plate of food onto the sidewalk in front of his neighbor’s house.

In the past, Hudman alleged, House of Ruth residents have been involved in a variety of illicit activities in the area around the shelter. For a time, a woman from the House of Ruth stood on the corner of 11th and G streets Northeast and was believed to be involved in prostitution, he said.

“There’s no reason for these ladies to be wandering the neighborhood,” said Hudman. “Our neighborhood is not a park.”

But House of Ruth Executive Director Christel Nichols took issue with some of the alleged activities of the women staying at the shelter, asserting that the staff tours the neighborhood three to four times a day to ensure against any loitering or other more unseemly behavior on the part of its residents.

Instead, Nichols said that “a whole bunch of people up on H Street that don’t have anything to do with the House of Ruth” could be responsible for much of the alleged activity.

“We really want to be very good neighbors,” she said, adding that shelter officials have had discussions with its residents about the inappropriateness of loitering in the neighborhood.

As a first step toward that goal, Nichols convened a public meeting in late April, a move required annually by the Board of Zoning Adjustment order granting its variance, but which has not actually occurred in the 10 years since Nichols took over as executive director.

“I never saw the order,” she said.

The meeting, which was called on short notice and attended by only a handful of residents, came on the heels of a letter sent to Nichols by Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6A Chairman Joe Fengler, in which he expressed “concerns about the adverse impact of the House of Ruth … on the immediate area surrounding the facility” and cited a variety of suspected violations by House of Ruth residents ranging from prostitution to drug use.

Officials from the Metropolitan Police Department were not available for comment.

House of Ruth, which houses 64 women at that location, has operated out of the old Madison School building since 1978. It is one of 11 facilities run by House of Ruth in the District. The nonprofit pays no fees for use of the facility and receives $371,000 in annual operating funds from the District through the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, which contracts with the city to administrate homeless services.

Cornell Chappelle, chief of program operations for the partnership, questioned accusations by some residents that the shelter was responsible for some of the undesirable activity in the neighborhood.

“How do you know who lives there and who don’t live there?” he asked. While Chappelle asserted that if residents of the shelter committed a violation they could receive a warning letter and eventually even expulsion, he conceded that unless the alleged activity was taking place on shelter premises it would be difficult to expel a resident.

“Is she denied shelter because she is a prostitute? Not necessarily,” he said.

And not all neighbors in the area believe the shelter to be problematic. One resident, who requested anonymity, said the situation with the House of Ruth had actually improved over the past half-dozen years, but as income levels in the neighborhood had risen, tolerance for any untoward behavior had decreased.

“This area seems to have more than its share of social service facilities, halfway houses and shelters, in addition to the normal crime of a city. That adds to the frustration,” the resident said.

Late last month the ANC’s Economic Development and Zoning Committee passed a resolution requesting that the House of Ruth conform to conditions set out in the BZA order, which stipulate that there be an ongoing liaison with the local ANC and community members, including the convention of a public meeting at least once a year. The committee also recommended that a neighborhood advisory council be set up to address community concerns.

The full ANC 6A is expected to approve the recommendation at its meeting Thursday.