At D.C. General homeless shelter, a school program offers a respite from worries

D.C. General keeps “you from being a kid,” as one mother put it, but the gathering on a recent Wednesday evening was intended to offer a respite from the chaos of homelessness.

D.C. General’s youngest residents may not know where they will be in a month or whether they will have hot water for a shower, but for an hour they can sing, dance and squirm with abandon at Freedom School.

The free program organized by the National Center for Children and Families (NCCF) is one of only a handful that cater to children at the shelter. The lack of such programs is an issue highlighted by homeless advocates.

On a recent evening, the children gathered around one of the program’s coordinators as he beat on a conga with a tropical theme painted on it. “I know I can be what I want to be!” they chanted.

Just months ago, Relisha Rudd was among the children at the shelter. She has since gone missing and is presumed dead, but her absence hangs over Freedom School.

When the kids filtered out to practice reading, more than two dozen mothers and a single father huddled to discuss a topic that had been on their minds since the 8-year-old’s disappearance: security.

Over the next 45 minutes, the conversation ranged from specific gripes about the shelter to general worries about life. With no homes and strangers all around, the women vented and tried to offer one another what support they could.

The NCCF agreed to let The Washington Post report on the session as long as the mothers were allowed to remain anonymous if they chose.

“Last night my baby wanted to take a shower, but there was no hot water,” one asked. “What do you tell him? What do you tell him when he asks when are we going to leave?”

Another said her daughter had been wetting the bed and acting out at school after moving to D.C. General. A third asked for guidance after her 10-year-old daughter lamented about life in the shelter.

“Mom, I don’t have a family anymore,” the mother said her daughter told her. “I don’t have nothing. . . . The teachers don’t know what I’m going through.”

In the same vein, another mother recalled her son’s dread when they arrived at D.C. General: “Mommy, this where the little girl went missing?” she recalled him asking. “Oh no, we’re going to be here?”

Tiara Davis, who knew Rudd and her mother, said her 9-year-old — just one year older than the missing girl — has been haunted by the disappearance.

“Since Relisha, my daughter wants to be with me the whole time,” Davis said.

NCCF executive director Sheryl Brissett Chapman chimed in: “A tragedy pushes kids back, so they can’t grow. It tells them ‘I’m not safe.’ ”

One mother said that the upheaval of being homeless had affected her family so much that her 4-year-old son had been trying to play parent to her.

“From December to now, we’ve been so many places, I feel like my son is now playing the role of protector,” the mother said. “If he goes with his grandparent, he will call a million times: ‘Mommy are you okay? You eat today?’ ”

Some of the women nodded knowingly.

Afterward, the children came back to the community room, and it grew noisy again. Everyone ate ice cream and cookies and chatted pleasantly. For a moment at least, the children were children again.

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