Has boys town lost its purpose?

By Will Hill and Ellen Opper-Weiner

Washington Post, September 9, 2001

Last month leaders of Girls and Boys Town marched to the Lincoln Memorial to announce a lawsuit against critics of its plan to build group homes on Pennsylvania Avenue SE [Metro, Aug. 15].

The Nebraska charity is suing the District, various local officials, a neighborhood group and us — two neighbors — for saying that its plan is an ill-conceived extravagance at taxpayers’ expense. Girls and Boys Town recently paid a whopping $ 8.2 million for a 1.6 acre lot — the former site of a carwash — on the 1300 block of Pennsylvania Avenue SE. The group’s plan raises questions that its leaders refuse to address:

* Why does Girls and Boys Town want foster children to live near a fast-food restaurant where three workers were killed in a 1995 robbery; another where addicts panhandle; a used car lot; a dingy convenience store; and a wig shop? Within a block or so of the lot, five young men have been shot dead in recent months. Nearby corners are known open-air drug markets. * Why does Girls and Boys Town propose to spend millions in tax dollars to serve relatively few kids?

* Is Girls and Boys Town bent on building a monument to itself, no matter what?

City planners say the area’s main asset is the Potomac Avenue Metro stop. Metro stops elsewhere have sparked economic revival, a strategy that seemed plausible here, too, until Girls and Boys Town showed up. Girls and Boys Town received a $ 7.1 million earmark in the 1999 federal budget for “expansion of its services in D.C.,” so we assume taxpayer funds fueled a willingness to buy 1.6 acres for a price believed to be double or triple its actual worth.

But Girls and Boys Town’s presence is unlikely to trigger a revitalization. Girls and Boys Town is merely taking the property off the tax rolls. The charity initially plans to build four $ 625,000 town houses. A few homes on Capitol Hill are worth $ 625,000, but you must travel to the richest suburbs to find homes on land so costly.

AOL’s chief executive, Steve Case, recently purchased a $ 10 million lot in McLean — but he got 11 acres. Our city has about 3,000 children needing foster care. Girls and Boys Town’s proposals for Pennsylvania Avenue are for 24 youths in four homes, plus another 16 in an emergency shelter — 40 kids, or 1.3 percent of the District’s foster care caseload. And the services will be very costly: Normally, the District pays foster families $ 24 per day per child, or about $ 8,500 a year. Girls and Boys Town charges the District $ 150 per day per child, or $ 55,000 per year. The children will attend D.C. public schools; and Girls and Boys Town will not be required to provide counseling or tutoring. Medicaid picks up medical bills. How many more needy kids could be served if this money were more wisely directed?

Meanwhile, Girls and Boys Town charges less for the same services elsewhere — $ 121 per day in New Orleans and $ 100 per day in Orlando. Girls and Boys Town won’t tell us why. And requests to meet are rebuffed. Girls and Boys Town appears to believe it is always right and everyone else is wrong — and it sues those who raise questions. Here’s hoping that The Post can press Girls and Boys Town for better answers than we’ve gotten.