TAKOMA PARK— Takoma Park Mayor Kate Stewart and City Council wrote a letter to state officials citing their opposition to a facility located on the border of Washington, D.C. and the City of Takoma Park housing unaccompanied migrant children.
Housing facilities designed to give shelter to migrants who come to the United States seeking asylum have become a hot topic of discussion in recent years. The influx of immigrants from Southern neighbor states have been difficult for the U.S. immigration system to handle, and tactics like separating children from their families and detaining migrants for extended periods have become commonplace.
Migrant housing facilities have drawn attention for inside conditions that elected officials have called inhumane and unhealthy. The facilities also have an air of secrecy, due to restrictions on media reports about the state of children being housed there.
In mid-August, reports circulated that a government contractor had filed an application to open a temporary shelter for migrant children in the District of Columbia. The facility would be placed in the Takoma neighborhood, which borders the city of Takoma Park in Maryland.
“We understand that there is a proposal to house over 200 unaccompanied minors from ages 12 to 17 at 6896 Laurel Street, NW, Washington, D.C. near the Takoma Park border,” the Takoma Park Mayor and Council wrote in a letter to state officials. “We fully support Mayor (Muriel) Bowser’s assertion that we should not accept ‘a new federal facility, least of all one that detains and dehumanizes children.’”
According to their website, the contractor proposing the facility, Dynamic Service Solutions, is a Maryland-based company that provides engineering and staffing services for its clients, which include the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, among other governmental and commercial organizations.
According to reports, the Department of Health and Human Services awarded Dynamic Service Solutions a $20.5 million contract to operate the shelter for children between the ages of 12 and 17.
Washington, D.C. Councilmember Brandon Todd, who serves Ward 4, has also been vocal about his opposition to the facility, which, if approved, would be housed in his ward.
Todd explained that in recent years, the District has closed its large shelters, which had been designed to aid the homeless. The largest shelter in the area, D.C. General, housed a little over 300 people. He noted that the District has moved away from large facilities that house hundreds of people to opt for smaller facilities that can provide more-targeted care.
“We know that housing hundreds of people who are homeless or in need is simply not a good idea,” Todd said. “So, what we’ve done in the District is we’ve opened eight smaller facilities—one in every ward, so that we can house people in a dignified and safe way where they have the opportunity to receive a full complement of services from our government.”
He noted that the proposed facility in Ward 4 is designed to house approximately 242 minors.
“We don’t think that it’s prudent, certainly I don’t believe that is prudent to turn around and allow the federal government to come in and do what we’ve been moving away from in the District of Columbia,” Todd said.
He noted that with smaller facilities, those in need are able to receive help with job placement, housing placement and even homework help for children still in school.
“There is lots of attention and lots of focus and a number of resources on a much-smaller number of people,” he said. “So, what we’ve found is that it’s more dignified, it’s safer, cleaner; it’s more manageable for the agencies that are in charge of them, and it makes people feel better. No one wants to be warehoused 300 or 400 at a time.”
Local community health organizations like Mary’s Center have also spoken out against these kinds of facilities. The organization, which has facilities in Montgomery County and the District, provide health care, literacy services and other social services to those in need in the D.C. area.
“As a healthcare provider, I vehemently oppose these centers which have been proven to adversely affect the mental health and well-being of children and their families,” said Maria Gomez, who serves as the president and CEO of Mary’s Center.
“When you house 200 plus children in one place without access to community services, such as schools, parks, health services, it is called a detention center. We should be placing children in group homes of no more than 10-15 children with the sole purpose of reunifying them with their families in the area as soon as possible. We need to stop tolerating the creation of facilities that favor family separation and engender fear,” Gomez said.
The Takoma Park Mayor and City Council cited concerns over the facility’s ability to meet the needs of children and maintain their health and safety.
“We understand that there is a need to temporarily house unaccompanied minors that have entered the country until they are settled into families. However, it is essential that those facilities be safe and meet the children’s needs,” they wrote. “The property at 6896 Laurel Street NW is in no way adequate to house 200 children. Moreover, the center would be run by a company with no experience (in) running facilities for children. These facts, along with many other factors, reinforce our deep concern that the U.S. government will allow conditions that would be unsuitable and unhealthy as well as dangerous for these children.”
The mayor and council also noted that the $20.5 million contract awarded to Dynamic Service Solutions could be money better spent on uniting children with their families and on providing medical and health services.
“The presence of this facility, even though it is operated by the Department of Health and Human Services, may mean an increase in the presence of ICE personnel in connection with these children. We fear that any increased presence of ICE will create tremendous fear among our residents, regardless of their immigration status,” they wrote.
Reports have indicated that the D.C. Child Family Services Agency has called the proposed facility “inadequate.”
Todd noted that he cannot speak on behalf of the agency but said, “Just on its face you look at this facility, and to tell me that the building in which they want to house 242 minors is suitable, I just don’t buy it. Period. Point blank.”
He also noted concerns over the sleeping conditions children would have to endure in the proposed facility and the lack of planning as to how children would get to school.
Currently the D.C. council is on recess, so any legislative action on their part is stalled until they reconvene, Todd explained. However, on Aug. 21, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser enacted an emergency regulation that, according to Todd, will prevent licensing facilities that house more than 15 children until mid-December.
He explained that he is unsure if the council will pass legislation right off the bat when recess ends on Sept. 16 but said there are plans to continue the fight against the proposed facility.