Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote to Sue Marshall. The comment was written by 18 religious leaders and was addressed to Marshall, executive director at the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness. This version has been corrected.
Bryana Garris usually tries to stay away from large gatherings outside the city’s largest homeless shelter, wishing to avoid trouble.
But she was drawn to the singing outside the former D.C. General Hospital on Tuesday evening as church choirs sang hymns of hope, and a D.C. Council member vowed to push legislation to tear the place down. She joined nearly 100 residents and community members at a rally calling for better food, cleaner floors and more housing alternatives to the shelter.
“I figured coming out for a pep rally is a good thing,” said Garris, who shares a room with her two children. Her mother lives there, too. Three generations of a family who say they have nowhere to go.
The rally was sponsored by the Washington Interfaith Network, a congregation-based community organizing group. Members of the organization said they had been visiting residents at the shelter in the past six weeks, and have been stunned by their stories.
On Tuesday, residents spoke of power outages and uncooked meat served in the cafeteria. One held up a sign saying, “No rats, no roaches.”
“I have been sick and my daughter has been sick,” said Bre Archie, 35, who has lived in the shelter for 16 months. “This is no place for children,” she added. “Its stressful for adults.”
Also attending was council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who wants to introduce plans to close D.C. General and demolish it before winter comes. Rather than have families stay at the old hospital, he wants to find new apartments for them by investing in programs that heavily subsidize units for the homeless.
“Families need kitchens. Families need bathrooms,” Graham said. “The city is flush with cash. We can afford to do better.”
The city’s largest homeless shelter has come under intense scrutiny following the disappearance of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd in February.
Relisha was taken off the property by a custodian named Kahlil Tatum, who had befriended Relisha and her mother. No one has seen the girl since, although Tatum’s wife was found dead in a motel in March. About two weeks later, he was found dead in a park in Southeast Washington.
The incident highlighted the decrepit conditions at D.C. General. Residents complained to WIN staff about moldy bread and leaky roofs, as well as infestations of rats and roaches. Last week, the organization wrote a letter to the contractor that runs the shelter, asking staff to remind residents that they are free to speak out about conditions.
“It has also disturbed us that at times residents have expressed their disquiet about D.C. General in hushed tones or while looking over their shoulders,” stated a letter from 18 religious leaders addressed to Sue Marshall, executive director at the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness.
“Residents repeatedly expressed fear of reprisal from staff if they spoke out loud about their concerns,” the letter said. “If history is any lesson, places where people are afraid to speak up tend not to be safe places.”
The group met with Marshall’s deputies Monday night. Rev. Michael Wilker told the crowd that he was shocked to hear the organization’s unwillingness to acknowledge problems with the food or to have the director meet with residents. No staff member from the community partnership made themselves known at the rally.
WIN is the latest group calling for policy changes at the shelter, including adding on-site counselors and a playground.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has also expressed his desire to close down the shelter, provided they can find new places to stay for homeless families. That has proven difficult — officials have said the plan to find 500 new heavily subsidized units for homeless families this summer is already falling behind.
City officials were stunned this winter by a 135 percent increase in the number of homeless families seeking shelter during hypothermia season, when the District is legally obligated to house the homeless. In an unusually cold winter, about 550 children were packed into the old hospital. The overcrowding reflects a dire lack of affordable housing in the city.
Out of shelter space, the city began placing families in recreation centers and motels in the District and the Maryland suburbs. The city leaders eventually ended the practice of placing families in other jurisdictions and a judge declared the practice of using recreation centers unsafe and illegal.
Pastor Patrick Smith of St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church in Northwest told the crowd it was time to add pressure to fix conditions there. He told representatives from the churches to think of residents as neighbors.
“We stand here in solidarity,” Smith said. “We must let our neighbors know we will be neighbors to them.”