8 years old and homeless: In D.C., there are hundreds of children just like Relisha

Meet Kayla, a D.C. third grader who lives in a shelter for homeless families at the former D.C. General Hospital. It's the same shelter where 8-year-old Relisha Rudd lived before she disappeared in March. (The Washington Post)
Petula Dvorak
Columnist March 31

Kayla is 8 years old, just like Relisha.

Her front yard is the dirty concrete portico outside the shelter for homeless families at the old D.C. General Hospital, where she and nearly 600 other homeless children live largely hidden from view. These kids rarely penetrate the public consciousness unless something even worse than being homeless happens to them, as police believe it did to Relisha Rudd, who has been missing from the shelter for weeks and is feared dead.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

Like all the kids at the shelter, Kayla knows something bad happened to Relisha. And it scares her. Kayla is back in the shelter for the second time in less than a year, but she imagines a much different life for herself.

“I want to go to California someday,” the third-grader told me. “My mom says she’ll take me there after graduation. There are dangerous people here, so it would be nice to get away.”

So many people are haunted by the story of Relisha, who vanished after being handed over to a shelter janitor suspected of killing his wife. On Monday, police discovered a body at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens in Northeast Washington that Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier says has been tentatively identified as Kahlil Malik Tatum, the 51-year-old janitor sought in Relisha’s disappearance.

Of course, we are heartbroken about Relisha. But what about the rest of the shelter’s homeless kids? Don’t they deserve every bit of help we can give them? Would we be doing more if we knew them better?

So with the permission of their parents, I spent the weekend talking to children in the lobby of the place they are forced to call home.

They have been afraid of the man they have called “Mr. Tatum.” They have worried that he would pop out of the trash chute or the boiler room because he knew all those places as the janitor of the shelter. He has been their boogeyman.

The shelter kids wake up every morning on hospital beds. They see rats and bed bugs and are afraid when they go to the showers, which don’t always have hot water. When they leave the shelter in the morning, they walk past a crowd of smoking, hollering strangers on the sidewalk to the buses that carry them to their only real escape, school, where they often pretend to be living somewhere else.

Most of them don’t want their friends, teachers or coaches to find out they are homeless.

“I’ll talk to you, but just don’t put, you know, my face and D.C. General next to it,” a 13-year-old said.

She roared into the conversation on a skateboard through the lobby of the shelter. “I’m sorry,” she yelled over her shoulder as she zoomed past security guards.

She plays football and basketball for her middle school team. And she loves technology.

“When I grow up, I want to do any kind of job that has to do with math,” she told me. Her family has been at the shelter for nearly three months, and it’s starting to feel claustrophobic. It’s hard lying to her friends about where she lives, she said.

The knot of boys who surrounded me in the lobby also didn’t want their friends to know about the shelter.

J’Quan, 9, loves football, basketball and soccer. But there’s no place to play outside at the shelter, not even a playground.

So J’Quan and lots of other kids play video games in their small rooms. J’Quan is good at driving games. Life in the shelter is “horrible,” he said, and he dreams of getting in a race car and speeding away.

His brother Trevon, 12, has bigger aspirations. “I’m going to Alabama to play football,” he told me. “And then I’m going to be a lawyer.”

The middle brother is Bryan. He’s 10, loves all the sports that his brothers love, but his escape is the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” books. He rips through the series at night, when everyone is trying to sleep.

Kayla got a reprieve from the shelter after her family received a Rapid Re-Housing voucher and was able to move into an apartment. But when the voucher ran out, they couldn’t keep up with the rent. While talking to me, she is vigorously brushing the hair of a big-headed tween doll that is missing its feet and hands. The one she left in her room is missing eyes. She calls that her “blind doll” and doesn’t ask her mom for a new one.

Her math teacher is also her cheerleading coach, she said, and math is her favorite subject. She kills it doing division. After school, she likes drawing, singing and dancing.

“Like Beyoncé,” she said.

“So do you want to be a singer when you grow up?” I asked her.

“I want to be a doctor, so I could take care of my mom,” Kayla told me.

At night, her brain doesn’t shut off easily in the loud, echoing former hospital. “I usually stay up all night,” she confided. “I’m afraid.”

I’ve spoken with international aid workers who said D.C. General has the look and feel of a refugee camp, just blocks away from the Capitol dome and a taxpayer-funded baseball stadium serving crab nachos.

On Tuesday, as the city’s voters cast their ballots in the Democratic mayoral primary, shouldn’t everyone be thinking about these children and what we can do to make a difference in their lives?

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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