Montgomery County has spent more than $2 million to expand capacity at two severe weather shelters since its primary men’s shelter in Rockville was evacuated.
The facility on East Gude Drive was closed last spring after a series of mysterious vibrations. The evacuation has disrupted homeless services into the fall and winter, when the county prepares for an increase in residents seeking temporary shelter.
The county has been forced to improvise solutions as it debates the future of the site.
It’s still unclear whether residents and employees of the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless— the nonprofit that operates the shelter on behalf of the county — will return to the facility in the spring of 2020.
But members of the council’s Health and Human Services Committee on Monday directed officials to make a decision as soon as possible, highlighting the difficulty of relocating men from the site.
“It was the curveball of all curveballs,” said Council Member Gabe Albornoz, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, at a meeting on Monday afternoon with officials from MCCH and county agencies. “And it presented challenges we had not anticipated.”
The East Gude Drive shelter made headlines in May after employees and residents complained of heavy vibrations and loud rumbling coming from the county’s closed Gude landfill next door. The incident sent one resident to the hospital and forced the others to evacuate within three hours, said Susie Sinclair-Smith, the CEO of MCCH.
A similar incident had occurred in February at the nonprofit’s administrative building, which is located even closer to the landfill, said Chief Programs Officer Jennifer Schiller. She described the decibel level as similar to a rock concert, forcing her to shout to be heard as she and her co-workers evacuated the building.
One worker went to the hospital with severe vertigo, Sinclair-Smith said. The rest of the nonprofit’s administrative employees relocated to conference rooms across the street.
The experience in February, which was never fully explained to employees, made it even more frightening when the nonprofit had to evacuate its men’s shelter in May for the same reason, Schiller said.
Workers were pushing residents away from the windows because they were afraid there might be an explosion at the landfill, she added. Within hours, the nonprofit had to transfer 65 men from East Gude Drive to an overflow shelter on Crabbs Branch Way, which wasn’t set up to deliver the same services.
“It was complete and utter chaos,’ Schiller said. “And all I could think was, ‘This can never happen again.’”
The incidents also forced the county to take emergency measures as colder months approached this fall. With East Gude Drive closed, the county’s departments of General Services and Health and Human Services collaborated to expand capacity at other sites.
Staff also had to find an alternative shelter for the men at Crabbs Branch Way, said General Services Director David Dise. The Rockville site was designed as an overflow facility for the East Gude Drive shelter during hypothermia season, not a permanent home for MCCH’s most vulnerable — and stable — population of residents.
The county ultimately negotiated with Rockville to temporarily lease an abandoned office building on Taft Court, which the city had purchased and planned to convert into a new administrative space.
It cost a little more than $2 million for renovations at Taft Court and Progress Place in downtown Silver Spring, where the county renovated an additional floor to provide more emergency housing during hypothermia season, said Amanda Harris, the chief of services to end and prevent homelessness at the county’s Department of Health and Human Services.
Both Harris and HHS Director Raymond Crowel said they were confident that the county could accommodate its usual increase in homeless clients over the winter. But Sinclair-Smith said she was concerned that a smaller-than-usual number of residents meant that men were confused about where to seek shelter.
Schiller told committee members that a group of men had already broken into the East Gude Drive site at the start of November. There was no signage to warn residents that the shelter had closed or to direct them to other services.
The county’s homeless hotline, staffed by volunteers, also provided varying assistance on where to go, she said. It left men without a viable alternative to the shelter that many had relied on for decades.
“It wasn’t until we showed up to get some computers that we realized people were there,” Schiller said. “So, how do we ensure that people know where we are and how they can find shelter?”
Harris said that Monday’s meeting was the first time the county had heard concerns about its homeless hotline. She and Crowel said they planned to look into the problem, and Dise told committee members that the county’s Department of General Services would add signs to East Gude Drive by the end of the week.
But the county is also facing a bigger problem in April, when its lease at Taft Court expires. It’s still unclear whether residents and employees will move back to East Gude Drive.
A report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, released in November, found that sound levels at the Gude landfill were “well below” levels likely to cause health problems.
But Sinclair-Smith pointed out that the report wasn’t able to measure, or replicate, the noise levels in February and May when residents and workers had to evacuate the shelter. Neither NIOSH nor the county’s Department of Environmental Protection have been able to confirm what caused the loud noise events.
Environmental Protection Director Adam Ortiz said the flares used to burn off excess methane at the landfill may have restarted, resulting in louder-than-normal vibrations.
The NIOSH report speculated that heavy rain before the February incident might have increased the amount of methane released by the landfill, requiring more air intake through the flares.
Since the incidents, DEP has made some improvements to the flares, including an automated system that can remotely monitor the methane levels at the landfill, Ortiz said. But the department hasn’t consistently monitored the noise levels at the landfill or substantially altered the flares in an effort to contain the reverberations.
Sound control systems at the landfill would be expensive, Ortiz said. The department has considered options to encapsulate the flares in noise-buffering structures — which would likely need to be at least 85 feet tall to reduce the range of the sound waves — or better insulate the shelter itself.
Both options would likely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and only reduce the sound level by 5 or 10 decibels, he said.
The county could also relocate the shelter entirely, but finding a suitable location could take months, if not years, to negotiate, Dise said.
Committee members said they were conflicted by the cost of the improvements and the risk of allowing people to return to the East Gude Drive site. Council Member Craig Rice said he was leaning toward finding a replacement shelter, despite the cost to the county.
“From my perspective, I don’t see any other way around it,” he said. “Unless we had some evidence to show us that, indeed, the problem was fixed by changes we made. That’s the only way it would make sense to me to put people back in that situation.”
The committee directed both departments to research solutions and come in for another meeting in early 2020.