Arlington County held the first in a series of public input meetings Wednesday night on the design of the planned year-round homeless service center for the Courthouse community.
By coincidence or by design, the evening doubled as a first attempt to broker peace between the county government and people in the neighborhood who feel they've been ignored, their concerns neglected.
In some ways, it was a victory for the county that no one threw their hands up in the air and left, frustrated.
Kurt Larrick, the communications manager for the county's Department of Human Services, said he was "encouraged" to see "the Hatfields and the McCoys" sitting at the same table, talking through their concerns.
"It's not lip service," he said. "It's genuine."
But that doesn't mean any healing has taken place.
When opposition first mounted to the county's plan, elected officials painted the deal as a simple real estate transaction. That description was used again just last month. Residents would have a chance to weigh in when the county applies — to itself — for the appropriate permit to put a shelter in the Thomas Building, 2020 14th St. N., officials said.
Wednesday night, residents were asked to weigh in on a number of issues, ranging from the placement of the entrance to the shelter to window treatments.
"I don't care about window treatments," resident Asieh Kehyari told a county representative. "We were sold a bill of goods. This is ridiculous."
She added: "I just don't believe anything I hear from Arlington County anymore."
The county first announced its intentions for the Thomas Building just before Thanksgiving last year.
As the holiday rolled around this year, the Arlington County Board authorized spending about $27 million to acquire the building, which houses Ragtime and two other ground-level retail tenants. Again, the neighbors — particularly in the Woodbury Heights condominium building — were upset and felt that their concerns had fallen on deaf ears.
About 50 residents met with county staff at Key Elementary School for an overview of plans for the building and to offer input. People were overwhelmingly concerned with security and in subsequent break-out groups talked about the placement of various cameras, a shielding wall, a panic alarm similar to what is found on college campuses, a 24-hour security guard and denying service to anyone with a history of violent crime.
The new center, like the county's emergency winter shelter that it will replace, will be low-barrier, which means background checks aren't performed. Generally, anyone who obeys the rules of the shelter and works with their case manager and any counselors — substance abuse or mental health, for instance — can stay.
Kathy Sibert, executive director of the Arlington Street People's Assistance Network, or A-SPAN, which is in line to operate the year-round center, said background checks weren't totally off the table. A-SPAN currently does not have the ability to conduct such checks, though, she said. The nonprofit does keep files on all of its clients and meets with the county weekly to discuss them.
Deputy County Manager Marsha Allgeier said denying anyone service based on their history was highly unlikely.
In the end, the county was given several practical insights — what could be done to make people feel safe, for instance — but continues to face plenty of challenges.
Residents were concerned about homeless who may try to access the center after curfew or when it is full. They were worried about the proximity of any sex offenders who may use the center to their residential area. Some questioned whether Ragtime, which sells alcohol, should be allowed to remain in a building that will house the homeless, some of whom will have substance abuse problems.
Ken Robinson, president of the Woodbury Heights Condominium Association, said he felt the county had finally shown some interest in the neighborhood's security concerns after failing to do anything in the past month. Wednesday's meeting, he said, was to allow the county "to assess the level and intensity of opposition."
Robinson said he's still fighting the battle on screening. He reiterated multiple times that county board members said last month during a public forum that "people have a right to feel safe in their homes."
The county will compile all of its notes and put them online.
The next community meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Dec. 17 at Key Elementary School.