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'Free Franklin' Protesters Propose Reopening Franklin School Homeless Shelter

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WASHINGTON -- The "Free Franklin" protesters have a distinct goal: to get the Franklin School, a city-owned former men's homeless shelter at 13th and K streets NW that has been empty for more than three years, reopened for community use.

While several different uses have been proposed for the Franklin School, during the "Free Franklin" demonstration last Saturday, protesters appeared to coalesce around the idea of the building becoming a homeless shelter once more, before the coldest time of the year arrives. But questions have been raised about whether this would be a good idea.

"The issue of whether it should be a homeless shelter again is a complicated one," said Andy Silver, a staff attorney for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.

Silver says that the protesters are right that D.C. needs more shelters for homeless people to go during the year's coldest months -- especially downtown, and especially ones designed for women and families. (The number of homeless families has increased more than 30 percent in the past three years, even while the overall number of homeless people in the District stayed relatively stable.)

Last winter, the lack of space for homeless families was already a major problem. The District's 2011-2012 winter plan has been roundly criticized as leaving even more families in the cold.

But the Franklin School is not a panacea. To start, it used to be a men's shelter, not a shelter for women or for families. Other, perhaps more intractable problems, Silver says, include the building's lack of a fire safety system, as well as issues with heat, hot water and bedbugs. As Lydia DePillis pointed out in the Washington City Paper, there are also serious problems with lead and asbestos.

"Franklin itself was not a very good facility. I don't think they should just open it as it is," Silver said. "I think if the choice is opening the Franklin School or doing nothing, certainly the Franklin School is better than doing nothing. But it really should be a more coordinated approach."

It could happen. The city is revising its winter plan after receiving a great deal of criticism over its lack of provisions for families. Silver is "cautiously optimistic" about the forthcoming new plan.

"There is hope that with the backing of the mayor they're going to come to the table with more resources, in time for this hypothermia season," Silver said.

The "Free Franklin" protesters have been criticized for being naive about economics and too optimistic that reopening the Franklin School will help solve the problem of homelessness in D.C. But Silver believes they have helped draw attention to the District's homeless housing issues, including those that people were talking about back in 2008, when the Franklin School was being shut down.

"I think people had moved onto other fights. This certainly refocused people on the fact that the building is still vacant, years later. And all the things that the community predicted was going to happen when it closed came true," Silver said. "There isn't sufficient capacity. At the time of closing there was talk of a replacement in the downtown area, and that hasn't happened. I think it was kind of an issue that was not really being raised much anymore. Any awareness they're bringing is welcome."

RELATED VIDEO: Members of the Free Franklin protest, on November 19.

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