A playground at D.C. General is going up, to the surprise of D.C. Council

Petula Dvorak
Columnist July 3

For seven years, their playground has been a tangle of broken car parts, flattened cans, bottles and cigarette butts near a bus depot.

But after years of lobbying, political gamesmanship and foot-dragging, the hundreds of children crammed into the largest family homeless shelter in the nation’s capital will finally get a playground.

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

The city found $450,000 for the project, and it has ordered the equipment and promises that the installation will be done by the end of September, an official with the D.C. Department of General Services said in a surprise announcement this week.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that there will still be plenty of homeless kids around to use it.

Not even the furor over the disappearance of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd, who lived at the shelter and is presumed dead, has changed that.

As we approach the end of Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s hoopla-filled campaign to house 500 families in 100 days, the reality of this city’s pernicious affordable-housing crisis is back in the spotlight. Next week, Gray (D) is going to announce that in 100 days of all-out battle, city agencies could manage to get only 150 families moved out of the shelter. The city continues to fill local hotels with 240 homeless families, and there are 270 families still living in the former D.C. General Hospital.

So a playground that has long been delayed for a variety of cockamamie reasons is their consolation prize. And that kind of came as a happy surprise to some of the folks who have been fighting for it.

The idea for a playground was launched by the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, which runs children’s programs at city shelters. Last year, program officials began asking the city if there was any way it could build a playground on that campus of misery. Up to 600 of the city’s most vulnerable kids live inside an abandoned hospital, alongside the city jail, the old morgue and a methadone clinic.

The Playtime Project partnered with Pepco to help raise cash for the playground through the business community and to help get through government hoops to get the thing built on city-owned land.

But various city officials said there was no good space to be found in the area. Then they said the land is slated for a major redevelopment project, so why build anything new here? Then they said it makes no sense to build a playground in a place everyone wishes didn’t exist.

I talked to city officials, trying to pinpoint the holdup, when I wrote about it in April. The city has spent $35 million on amazing playgrounds throughout the city, sometimes in neighborhoods where only a few dozen kids live. Why can’t we build one outside a building that often has 600 kids inside? And all I got was “No,” “No” and “No.”

So D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) created legislation in May to pass a law and force the city to build a “temporary playground.”

There. Did that make everyone feel better? To call it temporary?

All of the council members backed the bill.

At a hearing Wednesday, Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) gave an impassioned speech about the city shelter and children’s need for a play space, despite everyone’s misgivings about the shelter.

“Isn’t it remarkable that we don’t have any recreation facilities in this little town we created?” he said.

For hours, advocates spoke about the need for a playground. Homeless mothers, one with her daughter in tow, nervously sat at the witness stand, leaned into the microphone and explained how tough life in the shelter was and how much the kids needed a safe space to play.

Darlene Lawrence, the medical director at the Unity Health Care center next to the shelter, said the homeless kids have an unusually high rate of asthma, prolonged respiratory ailments and rashes.

They also have an outsize problem with obesity, and they are hospitalized three times as much as kids living in stable homes.

Doctors diagnosed anxiety and depression in 47 percent of the homeless children, which is depressing considering that those things show up in only 18 percent of kids who have a home.

The legislation had a parade of supporters.

The last witness to take the stand, June Locker, the General Services Department’s development director of capital construction projects, said she didn’t even know about the legislation.

Locker threw up a slide show of the playground her crew is planning to build. It will be on the grassy piece of land across from the shelter’s entrance, where folks held a candlelight vigil for Relisha, who was abducted by a shelter janitor this year. Locker showed the panel sketches of the equipment they have ordered and said the city found capital money for the project.

Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Graham were stunned. They grilled Locker. “Where did it come from that there should be a playground?” Wells asked.

He wanted to know who — exactly — has been saying “No” all these years and who — finally — said “Yes.”

She didn’t know.

“This is something that could’ve been done all along,” Wells said.

Yup. If there was any other place in the city that had 600 kids and no place to play, you bet a playground would go up. But too many folks want to forget that the kids at D.C. General exist.

A city official told me that it was Gray who ordered up the playground construction, perhaps to soften the disappointing results of his campaign to house 500 families in 100 days.

General Services Director Brian Hanlon made everyone happy by buying equipment that can be moved or incorporated in the site’s redevelopment.

Oh, yeah. Some other kids might be able to use it, so that makes it okay.

And even in trying to help them, we continue to marginalize those kids in the shelter.

Twitter: @petulad

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

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