Dozens of reformed drug addicts flooded Capitol Hill’s Old Naval Hospital on Thursday to demand that Washington, D.C., officials allow the Community Action Group to stay in the hospital’s Carriage House, calling the 131-year-old building a “beacon of hope” for the addicts who are treated there.
Their dismay was triggered by a proposal released last week that would turn the Carriage House into a family-friendly cafe as part of the renovation of the dilapidated Old Naval Hospital. In one of the hospital’s run-down rooms Thursday, the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission met to decide whether to support the proposal, which was written by a community group and recommended by a city-sponsored selection committee.
“The proposal has two critical flaws, the first of which is you forgot about us,” CAG President Hal Gordon said to a roomful of cheers. “You got caught up in the obsession that has taken over the city in economic development. In your rush for economic development, you forgot about the issues that are critical to low-income people.”
The renovation of the Old Naval Hospital has been a long haul. Disagreements have stalled negotiations and the city has opened the bidding process twice, with the Old Naval Hospital Foundation penning the latest plan. It calls for classes such as “Toddler Dancing With Dad” and “French for Travel” in a building that once was used to treat sailors in the late 1800s. A financial plan would ensure the center is self-sufficient, getting most of its income from rental space and endowment income. The new plan also calls for about 10 percent of the center’s $550,000 operating budget to come from the cafe, which also would provide a place for cooking students to try out their skills.
“The cafe is part of the financial situation of it, part of the synergy of it,” said Betty Ann Kane, a foundation member. “It’s not just another coffee shop.”
But the CAG has occupied the Carriage House for 16 years, fixing it up and using it as a recognizable safe haven for drug addicts and the homeless. Losing that symbol means more than just losing office space, CAG members said. They said Thursday that they felt forgotten by fellow long-term Hill residents and pushed out by gentrification.
Ten years ago, Guy Featherstone said he was a heroin and cocaine addict who had been arrested 17 times for “shooting dope and robbing people.” One night, he was walking down Pennsylvania Avenue and saw a light on in the windows of the red-brick building. He walked in, entered the program and is now an account manager at a law firm.
“To me, it’s simple logic: a life-saving program or a cafe,” he said.
Some seem to agree. The ANC supported the plan but asked that extra time be given to perhaps include the CAG. And the D.C. Office of Property Management, which eventually will select a plan for the site, will give the Old Naval Hospital Foundation and the CAG 30 days to work things out, said OPM Director Lars Etzkorn. Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells will coordinate the meetings.
“I’m optimistic we’ll get something,” Wells said. But he also said it was time for the hospital to be renovated. “I think it’s a strong proposal and a precipitous time.”