Employees and residents with the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless will not return to their former facility on East Gude Drive in Rockville.
The men’s shelter has been empty since May, when mysterious vibrations from the Gude landfill next door prompted an evacuation of the site. Months later, a report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that sound conditions at the facility were “well below” levels likely to cause health problems.
But on Monday, Raymond Crowel — director of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services — said lingering concerns from residents and shelter employees made the county unwilling to use the site again as a homeless shelter.
“We recognize that the levels of anxiety make it prudent not to return to Gude Drive in the near future,” Crowel said Monday during a briefing with the County Council’s Health and Human Services Committee. “And that’s left us to develop some alternatives.”
Problems at the site began in late 2018, when MCCH employees at the administrative building began noticing vibrations coming from the county’s Gude landfill. By January 2019, the administrative building was shaking on a near-daily basis, said Susie Sinclair-Smith, the CEO of the nonprofit.
County staff members attributed the complaints to two flares used to burn off excess methane gas coming from the landfill. The flares had been used at the site for years, Environmental Protection Director Adam Ortiz wrote in an earlier text message, but often vibrated when the system was shut off and turned back on again.
In February, and again in May, the vibrations were so severe that several employees and residents at the shelter reported health problems, including vertigo, hearing loss, and tinnitus. One employee and one resident were hospitalized, Sinclair-Smith said, and the nonprofit evacuated the site on May 4.
A few weeks ago, the county hired a contractor to monitor air quality, noise, and vibrations inside the former shelter, Department of General Services Director David Dise said on Monday.
The county’s Department of Environmental Protection had already renovated and replaced many components of the methane flares, Dise added. But the county had to determine whether the building needed further reinforcements before it could be retrofitted for another use.
Since May, MCCH has moved twice. Over the summer of 2019, the shelter’s permanent residents were relocated to a facility on Crabbs Branch Way, which MCCH normally uses as an overflow shelter during the fall and winter.
In November — at the start of the county’s cold-weather emergency shelter season — MCCH moved again to a temporary facility on Taft Court.
Both interim shelters have their own set of problems, Sinclair-Smith said Monday. The overflow facility on Crabbs Branch Way was designed to accommodate short stays by men seeking shelter during colder months. But it can’t support the nonprofit’s full range of providers, including a medical team, an employment specialist, and a long-term-housing locator.
Beyond that, there are problems with basic hygiene, Sinclair Smith said after Monday’s meeting. To expand the Crabbs Branch facility, county officials installed tents in front of the building where men could eat their meals. Over the summer, there were persistent problems with mice and bugs in the dining area, which doesn’t have a finished floor.
Even with the temporary tents, the overflow shelter is too small for hypothermia season, when greater numbers of men experiencing homelessness seek out shelter. Over the fall, the county spent more than $2 million to expand capacity at two other sites, including Taft Court — an abandoned office building that the city of Rockville planned to renovate as administrative space.
The city agreed to lease out the facility until April 2020, Dise said at a previous committee briefing in December. At the time, Health and Human Services officials said they were still undecided on whether to reopen the Gude Drive facility in the spring.
But with the county’s primary men’s shelter now off the table, officials said they were still working to find a long-term solution. At Monday’s meeting, Crowel and Dise outlined plans to improve the Crabbs Branch facility until the county could construct another permanent shelter.
“Essentially, the upgrades will allow us to use the space for a more extended period of time before we come up with a permanent solution,” Crowel said. The county plans to expand the site with a modular shelter from Sprung, a company that produces long-lasting tent-like structures reinforced with aluminum girders.
Dise said the shelters can last for more than 20 years and be fitted with HVAC and electrical wiring. The company touts its “Sprung Navigation Centers” — homeless shelters that can be delivered and installed in eight weeks.
Several other cities have sourced homeless shelters from the company, including San Diego and Fresno, Dise said. The installation would double the size of the Crabbs Branch facility, which currently houses 65 men.
The county is also working to locate a site for a permanent new shelter. Dise said the Department of General Services is considering several options, including renovating an available county facility, leasing and refurbishing commercial space, or constructing a new building on county-owned property. At the meeting, he declined to specify which sites were being considered.
While MCCH was grateful for the collaboration, Sinclair-Smith said, she still had concerns about the county’s timeline for providing a permanent space.
Dise confirmed that the county likely wouldn’t complete a permanent shelter until at least midway through the cold weather emergency season, which begins Nov. 1. Even if capacity were doubled at Crabbs Branch, Sinclair-Smith said the nonprofit shelters anywhere from 65 to 235 men every winter.
“If Crabbs Branch becomes the permanent shelter, even temporarily, where is the overflow location going to be located?” Sinclair-Smith asked after the meeting. She was also concerned that the frequent moves would distress the long-term residents with MCCH — many of whom experience mental or physical health problems.
“It’s a very frail population,” she said.