D.C. family homeless shelter beset by dysfunction, decay

The D.C. General emergency shelter is supposed to be a cleaner place to stay than an alley, but records show that a young girl woke up with so many insect bites on her legs and her bottom that she had to be taken to the hospital.

It is supposed to be safer than a crime-ridden street corner, but a log shows that shelter officials were told that two teens pinned a 9-year-old to the floor of a bathroom and one urinated in the boy’s mouth.

It is supposed to be better than life on the streets, but one resident filed a complaint saying a shelter worker lured her to his apartment with an offer of $20. She said he began unfastening his pants and asked her: “What are you going to do for the money?”

The city’s largest shelter for families has been in the spotlight since March, when a janitor there took 8-year-old resident Relisha Rudd off shelter grounds. The girl remains missing and is presumed dead.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) has said he has seen no evidence that the city failed in that high-profile case, but a Washington Post investigation of the facility in Southeast that is home to nearly 800 of the District’s most vulnerable residents has found that Rudd’s case was part of a pattern of serious problems.

Housed in a former hospital built in the early 20th century and located at the bottom of a hill near the Stadium-Armory Metro station, D.C. General shares a litter-strewn piece of land with a clinic for meth rehabilitation and sexually transmitted diseases, a working jail, and the former city morgue.


Despite its intended purpose as a sanctuary, the shelter is too often beset by dysfunction, decay and disease. Sometimes, it is the more than 460 children living there who suffer the most.

Among the investigation’s findings:

●Staff members charged with caring for and protecting families often preyed upon them. Among 14 complaints of staff misconduct since 2012, residents allege that shelter employees have sexually assaulted them, taken photos of them while they showered, offered them money for sex, involved them in illegal tax scams and even fathered a child with one of them. The problems are worse than city officials have publicly acknowledged.

●Living conditions are often so poor at the crumbling 90-year-old facility that residents suffer, are sickened or are put at risk. The Post found that nearly 30 people were taken to the hospital or were forced to get treatment for bites caused by spiders and other pests; for parasites; for rashes because of dirty showers; or for other problems at the facility over the past two years. Residents have gone days — and sometimes weeks — without heat or hot water.

●The threat of violence, lax safety precautions and a lack of services have created an environment of fear and isolation. Police are called to the shelter frequently on reports of violence, curfew is regularly flouted and residents say security cameras are broken. The contractor failed to perform reference checks on employees, and at times the city has failed to properly monitor the shelter’s operation.

“I’m thankful that I have a roof over my head and my kids get meals every day,” said Nordicka Burton, who moved to the shelter in October with her two sons. “But after that, life is really a struggle. There are fights all the time, people are outside doing dope and my boys are scared.”

To produce this report, The Post interviewed dozens of residents, advocates for the homeless and officials. It gathered hundreds of pages of internal shelter documents through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and visited D.C. General numerous times. Reporting on the shelter is constrained because access is tightly controlled due to security rules.

City officials spoke generally about conditions at the shelter in an interview, but they did not respond to four written requests over several weeks about the specific findings of The Post’s investigation.

Beatriz Otero, deputy mayor for health and human services , said last week that she did not want to comment on specific issues with D.C. General because recommendations to the mayor are forthcoming.

The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness (TCP), the nonprofit group that runs the shelter under a $13 million contract with the city, referred all questions to city officials.

In the earlier interview, city officials defended the management of the shelter.

“I separate between things that are in our control and an antiquated building that we’re all very anxious to get out” of, said former Department of Human Services director David Berns, who took the helm in 2011 and retired in June. “Within the confines of an inadequate building structure, I think our contractor is doing a good job with the maintenance, in the cleanliness, in the staffing, in the oversight. Is it perfect? No.”


Residents of the D.C. General shelter outside the facility in the late afternoon light. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Families continue to be sent to D.C. General as the city has struggled with an unprecedented spike in homelessness caused in large part by a lack of affordable housing. Some advocates, residents and even the contractor running the shelter say it has grown so large that it is unmanageable, a city within a city.

Gray’s much-publicized plan to find housing for 500 homeless families in 100 days has met with limited success. As of Thursday — Day 99 — the city had placed 198 of them.

“We have created a small town, but it’s a small town without the amenities, without the playground and the sport facilities that are necessary,” said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who advocates closing the facility if adequate alternatives can be found. “Then we put into that small town the most vulnerable families in the District of Columbia.”

‘Way too close and friendly’

After Relisha went missing, a number of D.C. General residents told The Post that her suspected abductor, Kahlil Tatum, offered her and other young girls cash and bubble gum at the shelter, sometimes in the presence of other staffers.


Relisha Rudd in an undated photo provided by the FBI. (AP)

Kahlil Tatum in images provided by the Prince George’s County Police Department. (AP)

DHS officials and the TCP said that such behavior was never reported to them.

Such interactions are banned by employee guidelines aimed at protecting residents, but logs of shelter incidents obtained through FOIA requests and written testimony by a TCP official shows that fraternization was not uncommon. The shelter has about 110 full-time employees and about 50 full-time security staff.

The documents show that residents complained of workers’ inappropriate interactions on at least 14 occasions since 2012, including 10 reports of sexual misconduct. Records show that the allegations resulted in TCP and its subcontractors firing at least seven workers and removing three others from the shelter. One of the complaints was found to be baseless, and the outcomes of others are not reported.

Most of the problems involved male staff members targeting female residents. Sue Marshall, TCP’s director, has said the population of the shelter has been growing younger. Nearly 50 percent of families are headed by someone between 18 and 24, and the vast majority of them are headed by single mothers.

The documents show that a residential monitor was terminated after a former resident alleged he fathered a child with her. A shelter administrator was fired after inappropriate pictures of a resident were found on the administrator’s phone, and another staff member lost his job after a resident said he took pictures of her while she showered, according to the logs and testimony.

A utility worker was let go after shelter officials determined he had gone on a date with a resident and phoned her. Another residential monitor was fired after shelter officials discovered he had given a resident a graduation gift before she entered the shelter, then made an inappropriate advance while she was living there.


The exterior of the D.C. General shelter. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Another guard was terminated after he fondled a resident during a security check, according to the documents.

In the case of the shelter staffer who allegedly lured a resident to his apartment with an offer of $20, incident logs show that when he was questioned about the encounter by shelter officials, he denied it and responded, “I don’t give women money unless they are opening their legs.”

Another resident complained to shelter officials that she was approached by a security guard who asked her whether she could claim the resident’s 2-year-old daughter on her taxes in exchange for $750. The resident’s boyfriend had a family connection with the guard.

The resident agreed to the scheme, but then reported the guard after she failed to pay, records show. TCP asked a subcontractor to remove the guard from the shelter.

For privacy reasons, the city and TCP officials redacted or omitted the names of victims and the alleged perpetrators in the documents supplied to The Post and the testimony given to the D.C. Council’s Human Services Committee.

Some residents expressed concern in interviews and documented complaints about fraternization between residents and staff at the shelter.

“Staff is unattentive, way too close and friendly to residents,” a resident said in a complaint filed with the city in April. “I have remained calm about this situation for awhile but this has become an issue wit[h] my child and him feeling [e]erie about the missing little girl and the shelter conditions.”

In public interviews and testimony, the TCP director and city officials have said that only four workers have been fired for fraternizing with residents over the past year.

Michele Williams, the city’s family services administrator, said she didn’t think the fraternization violations pointed to systemic problems at D.C. General.

“I don’t think that’s unusual. These types of things do occur in all types of residential settings,” Williams said. “The key is that you have a system in which it’s responded to very quickly and the persons involved are terminated. And that’s what seemed to have happened in these cases.”

The incidents echo a 2010 scandal in which female residents alleged that shelter guards had had sex with them or solicited them. The reports prompted then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to fire the contractor running the shelter, Families Forward.

“These mistakes happen, but we’re not going to sweep them under the rug,” Fenty (D) said at the time. “We’re going to do something about them.”


‘It is dangerous ground’

Interviews with dozens of shelter residents and homeless advocates who work with them paint a picture of a crumbling facility where maintenance issues are stubbornly routine and pests and disease are common.

For Burton, living at the shelter has been a daily test of endurance for her and her two boys, 13-year-old Chris and 6-year-old Gavin.


Nordicka Burton, who works as a home health aide and is a single mother, has been living with her sons at D.C. General and hopes to move into transitional housing soon. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

She and her children were sleeping in her 2012 Honda Civic on a frigid night in October when a police officer found them and told them it was too cold to be outside. The Civic was Burton’s final stop after bouncing from place to place following the loss of her job in 2008.

The city assigned her family to D.C. General. When she arrived, Burton could hardly fathom that people actually lived there. D.C. General looked frozen in time, the same aging hospital that closed in 2001.

She was greeted by a facade with 16 broken windows. To her left stretched a large area with a jumble of overturned pale-blue chairs that once served as the hospital’s waiting room. To her right, tacked on an old message board, was a yellowed newspaper clipping about the shrinking number of city hospitals. It was dated Oct. 8, 2000.

Children arriving at the shelter from school wait in the lobby for their parents to get off work and get them. Sometimes, according to volunteers, there are not enough places to sit, and the children fall asleep squatting against the walls, toys at their feet.

“They don’t even offer them enough chairs,” said Kelli Beyer, outreach coordinator for the child advocacy organization Playtime Project, which organizes play sessions for the children in the shelter. “It’s almost as if they’re on display in the hallway, just before the security checkout, as people come in and out [of] the shelter.”

When Burton got to the spartan former hospital room she was assigned, staff members gave her a space heater because there was no heat. She couldn’t enjoy gazing out the window in her room because residents throw trash and dirty diapers from upstairs windows, much of it landing on a lower roof.

“You opened your windows, and everything smelled like feces,” Burton said.

Rashes soon formed on her son Chris’s legs. In January, Burton received a note that children in the building had been contracting scabies, which is caused by a mite burrowing into the skin. Although staff members said it was unclear whether the infections originated at D.C. General, city officials said there have been at least two other outbreaks this year.

Chris was diagnosed with dermatitis, possibly aggravated by contact with fungus or exposure to dust mites, the doctor told her.

Burton never put up posters or pictures or plugged in a TV, hoping her family could leave D.C. General as soon as possible. She figured her job as a full-time home health-care aide would help the family find housing and that they wouldn’t be there long. She took pride in not receiving any government support.


Nordicka Burton, a home health-care aide and D.C. General shelter resident, assists Darlene Jones in Washington. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Nordicka Burton reminds her son, Gavin, 5, about sportsmanship as she takes her boys to play in a friend’s neighborhood in April. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

“I don’t want us to get comfortable here,” Burton said.

The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless produced a report in the winter of 2013 that cited frequent heat outages in rooms, hallways and bathrooms. In one instance, the group said, a mother with an infant daughter waited three weeks in the dead of winter in a room without heat before the clinic intervened on her behalf and she was transferred to a heated room.

Records also show that residents have broiled in rooms so hot that they told shelter officials they feared for the health of children and the elderly.

The report also said sightings of mice and bedbugs were common. In interviews and reviews of documents, The Post found 27 instances of people who were taken to a hospital or sought medical attention because of bites, skin diseases and other problems at the shelter since 2012.

One woman was transported after she said a roach crawled into her ear while she slept, according to records.

Mbalaminwe Mwimanzi told a D.C. Council committee in February that he and his wife took turns staying awake at night to keep the roaches in their room off their 5-month-old child. “It is a dangerous ground for any child, any man or woman to reside there,” Mwimanzi testified.

Residents have complained of raccoons in the hallways, and city officials said they removed the animals on one occasion.

Residents and staff members have been rescued from the shelter’s faulty elevators on three occasions over two years, including once when a woman and her 7-month-old baby were trapped, logs show. Nassim Moshiree, an attorney for the legal clinic, said families of residents who use wheelchairs reported carrying their loved ones up several flights of stairs because of broken elevators.

On the floor above Burton, a half-dozen residents told The Post that the water that came out of the bathroom taps was often brown or cloudy. Teola Lake moved onto the fourth floor this past winter with her husband and daughter Dayniah, 1.


Dayniah Lake, 1, sits on the examination table at the HOYA Clinic, a volunteer-based, student-driven, free clinic inside the D.C. General shelter. (Amanda Voisard/The Washington Post)

Lake said that shower stalls were often so clogged and overflowing with dirty water that she thought it would be safer to bathe her child in the sink. Eventually, she did shower with Dayniah. Four days later, she visited a medical clinic run by Georgetown medical students at the shelter, where a medical student diagnosed Lake with skin fungus and ringworm and Dayniah was treated for boils and skin fungus. The family has since moved out of the shelter.

At the clinic, Eileen Moore, the medical director, said she teaches her students to look for rashes and bites on arms and legs because infections have become so frequent.

Williams, the city’s family-services administrator, said maintenance issues are hard to prevent, given the size of the facility and the constant churn of residents. She added that the staff cleans the bathroom every two hours and there are exterminations twice a week.

As for the raccoons, Otero, the deputy mayor for health and human services, shrugged off the problem.

“I had one in my house this year,” Otero said in an interview.

City officials and homeless advocates say D.C. General has never been properly maintained because most saw it as a Band-Aid for the city’s homelessness problem. The city began using the facility as a temporary shelter on cold nights in 2001, when the family shelter, D.C. Village, became overcrowded.

Fenty closed D.C. Village in 2007 amid complaints that it was infested with mice, roaches and other vermin unsuitable for children. His administration shifted families to D.C. General until a replacement could be found.

But the city never found one. During the winter months, almost 600 children were living in the former hospital.

“We have been in a nether world of not wanting to commit a lot of resources to the building and to the programs because we always saw this as a temporary solution,” Graham, chairman of the D.C. Council’s Human Services Committee, said at a recent hearing.


Joseph Marshall, 2, plays in a parking lot outside the D.C. General shelter in Washington. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)

The facility is so decrepit that the D.C. Department of Human Services and the contractor running D.C. General concede it cannot be fixed. TCP is responsible for maintaining the living quarters within the hospital, and the city is responsible for maintaining the common areas and the shelter grounds.

Despite $1 million spent on upkeep each month, Berns, the former DHS director, said in an interview that “no amount of renovation is going to make D.C. General a great place to live.”

Gray said he would accomplish his goal of placing 500 families largely through the city’s Rapid Rehousing program, which heavily subsidizes rents for families.

Meanwhile, city officials were so confident that they could find enough housing that they budgeted to provide shelter for just 150 homeless families this winter. Last winter, there were 700 homeless families.

The budget proposal for homeless family services for the coming fiscal year is about $5.5 million less than the $53 million that was allocated for this year.

Meanwhile, residents of D.C. General fear they will be unable to afford rents after their city subsidies, which can be renewed for up to one year, expire. If they can’t, they will likely wind up at D.C. General again.

After hearing how few families were placed during the mayor’s “500 families, 100 days” campaign, Graham said at a council hearing last week that he has lost hope that the city could empty the facility before the winter months begin.

“Pray that there is not another Relisha Rudd,” Graham said. He later added, “I really believe we’re going to have the same D.C. General next February that we had this February.”

‘Not received any support’

Bianca Charles said that with each day, she loses more hope that she’ll be able to leave D.C. General. She has been assigned a case manager, whom she likes, but she said she can never seem to get her on the phone to help link her with services.

“Every time I try, she’s on the phone with someone else,” Charles said.

Charles’s frustration is shared by other residents, who said they feel isolated by a lack of services and persistent problems with security at the shelter.

Residents said case managers are sometimes overwhelmed. Meetings can be perfunctory, lasting just minutes, and homeless advocates say in some instances, case managers have never asked about residents’ children.

Despite a dramatic 13 percent rise in homelessness in the District this past winter, the city said it reduced the number of case managers working at the shelter from 14 to 12. That makes a caseload of about 24 families per manager.

“I have been there for 5 weeks or longer, I have not received any support with housing,” one resident said in a complaint. “I have not been provided with an[y] resources pertaining to obtaining affordable housing. I was just told to find a job and that’s the only way I could receive help.”

Given the complicated web of services in the District, some advocates say the number of case managers is too small. By comparison, Darryl L. Leedom, the national social services secretary for the Salvation Army, said it strives for a ratio of one case manager to 15 residents at its shelters.

“If you are really going to do good intervention and build rapport, you need that time,” Leedom said.

Otero, the deputy mayor, said case managers were doing good work. Still, she acknowledged that staff could create better road maps out of homelessness for each family and help residents tap into the city’s network of social services.

“One of the things that this administration found lacking across the board for families is the lack of high-level, integrated case management that is across systems,” she said.

Nonprofit organizations try to help out. Georgetown medical students run the free clinic twice a week. Others arrange teen nights, book clubs, homework help or organized play times. Still, a recent report compiled by 20 nonprofit organizations called for the city to heighten funding for training and programming because “the reality is that it will be used for several years until a replacement shelter system is ready.”


Dashae Faulkner, 8, responds to a question during Freedom School at the D.C. General shelter. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Students make symbolic artwork representing themselves with superpowers during Freedom School. (Bonnie Jo Mount/Washington Post)

Following the report, the D.C. Council added $600,000 to hire 10 more social workers. The city also vowed to build a playground on the campus by October.

City officials have said they are concerned about investing too much in the shelter. They don’t want to create a sense of permanence.

Many residents and advocates say they are most troubled by a lack of safety at the shelter. In addition to the alleged instances of inappropriate sexual behavior by staff, records show police and security have responded to 51 reports of threats and assaults at D.C. General, and 70 cases of abuse, neglect and domestic violence since 2012 — or nearly one incident for every two families.

In one case, two female residents got into a fight in the lobby of the shelter, and a guard intervened but was knocked to the ground, according to the logs. One of the residents began kicking the guard and then slammed the other resident in the back of the head with a clothes iron. She was later arrested.

In another instance, records show a resident had a gun pulled on her and was beaten with a stick just outside the shelter.

Some residents said they stand guard outside communal restrooms because they fear someone might take advantage of their children.


Josiah Marshall, 3, plays in a parking lot outside the D.C. General shelter in Washington. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Just outside the shelter, a chaotic environment reigns. Children push themselves on scooters next to other residents lighting up joints. Many residents hang around later than the 9:30 p.m. weekday curfew.

In September 2013, a resident reported that an unidentified man gave her 3-year-old son a pill at a bus stop on the shelter campus, logs show. The woman noticed the pill in her child’s pocket and flushed it down the toilet, before it could be determined what it was.

The child was taken to the hospital to ensure that he had not ingested any other pills.

“It’s a very different environment from where you grew up,” said resident Catrice Cunningham. “You have to be on point all the time.”

‘Anything would be better’

When the Office of the Inspector General took a look at how DHS monitors its homeless shelters in 2012, the authors wrote in a report that they were “surprised” at what they found: an office with so few resources it couldn’t carry out its job.

The DHS’s Office of Shelter Monitoring (OSM) is tasked with inspecting the facility and making sure TCP meets the terms of its contract. But the office had just one staffer responsible for inspecting D.C. General and the city’s other 64 homeless shelters until June 2012, according to the report.

Monitors had no detailed guidelines for inspecting facilities, and the office had no automated way to track the problems it discovered and the fixes it required shelter operators to make. The office also had no one ensuring that the contractor running D.C. General delivered the services it was required to under its contract.

“OSM is charged with a considerable task: to monitor all 65 District homeless shelters,” the report concluded. “Yet, a small staff, inadequate policies and procedures, and informal tracking mechanisms all hamper OSM’s monitoring efforts.”

The inspector general found DHS failed to inspect D.C. General in 2010 as required by law — the same year Fenty fired the previous contractor when the allegations came to light that shelter staff had sex with residents.

A separate 2012 Office of the Inspector General review found that an unnamed senior shelter manager had told OSM that required criminal background checks and alcohol and drug screening had been performed on employees at D.C. General. The OSM inspector took the official at his or her word.

But when the files were reviewed independently, the inspector general found that 16 of 65 personnel files lacked the criminal background checks and 17 lacked documentation of alcohol and drug screening. The inspector general also found in the files that five of those employees admitted having felony convictions and six others had records “beyond traffic convictions.”

In addition, the inspector general found that three out of four personnel files did not have reference checks.

TCP officials told the inspector they were simply slow to put the documentation in files because of staffing issues, but the inspector general noted that the organization never turned over proof that the checks had been conducted despite repeated requests.

“The safety of children and youths receiving direct services from employees who do not have complete and satisfactory background checks and drug and alcohol testing may be at risk,” the inspector general concluded.

DHS officials said they have increased the number of inspectors and created an automated system to log complaints. Berns said in an interview that some of the problems were a holdover from a previous regime at DHS.


Nordicka Burton buckles in her son, Gavin, before taking him to school in April. Burton has been living at D.C. General and hopes to move into transitional housing. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

On a spring day, Burton took Chris and Gavin to McDonald’s for a treat. Chris bragged about how he finished all his homework and felt good about how he did. But Burton was distracted. The home-aide agency she works for had downsized. Her job had reduced her hours, from 56 to 18, and she had had little luck finding a place to live.

“I’m going to lose everything,” she said as she dabbed her eyes with a napkin. “I need to redo my résumé, but I can’t because my computer is broken. I don’t even know if I want to work in the medical field anymore. Maybe as a receptionist, but not with clients, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll have to use [welfare]. I don’t want to, but maybe I’ll have to. Oh, God, help me figure something out.”

Chris, who wants to be a basketball player and a therapist, had a thought. “Maybe you can be an art teacher?”

Burton saved the two last McNuggets and the fries her sons didn’t eat so they could have a treat at the shelter later. The sky began to dim, and the family climbed into the Civic that was once their home.

“Today was a good day, Mom. Thank you,” Chris said.

But Burton dreaded what came next. They were returning to the place at the bottom of the hill, and another day had passed with only a prayer that they would ever leave D.C. General.

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
DeNeen L. Brown is an award-winning staff writer at The Washington Post who has covered night police, education, courts, politics and culture.
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