The Halloween party was in full swing, with a DJ clown cranking “Monster Mash,” caramel apples being stripped of their sticky coatings and little bumblebees, pirates and princesses dancing off their sugar rushes.
The celebration was next to a cemetery. And a morgue!
Brilliant party planning?
Nope. Harsh reality at one of the nation’s largest family homeless shelters.
This Halloween bash was at D.C. General, the former hospital in Southeast where the city houses its homeless families. And because the staff members knew the kids couldn’t go ringing doorbells at the jail or the STD clinic — the other neighbors in this lovely area — they gave the children their own private party.
No one else would see them. And that’s part of the problem.
D.C. General is the crown jewel of the city’s shameful housing calamity. We have created a small city with its own security force, a $13.8 million annual operating budget, a three-meals-a-day food program and about 150 full-time employees and 80 part-time employees. Population? Almost 300 families.
On Nov. 1, the number of people crammed into this out-of-site, out-of-mind shelter will start to swell. That’s the start of hypothermia season, when the city is legally obligated to house the homeless. Last winter, there were about 600 children living at D.C. General.
The problem could be even worse this year. The District has projected that more than 500 families will find themselves newly homeless this winter. City officials say that’s a 10 percent increase in homeless folks.
Conditions are far better at D.C. General than they once were. Four years ago, homeless families were sleeping in the hallways and shivering in rooms with no heat and little bedding. The security guards were trading better rooms for sex. It was like an episode of “The Walking Dead,” with fewer zombies.
Since then, the sex-trading company has been fired and millions of dollars have gone toward improving the place. The walls are painted with bright colors and murals. There is a free health clinic and healthful meals in the cafeteria.
None of this fixes the real problem. Our city is in the midst of a huge economic boom. But hundreds of kids get off the bus after school every day and walk past a jail to get to a cot in a closet-sized room they call home. They are the invisible homeless.
For many people who work downtown, addicts panhandling on K Street or mentally ill folks pushing carts and ranting to themselves are the face of homelessness. But the invisible homeless — the kids with their backpacks, their moms serving you Harvest Pumpkin soup at Au Bon Pain or greeting you at their security post inside the lobby of your K Street office — are about the crisis of affordable housing in the District.
How is it possible that we don't have the political will to help these families find a decent place to live?
“This is what I know: D.C. residents will not tolerate children living in the street,” said D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4), a mayoral contender whose constituents slapped down a proposal for a small-scale family shelter in their neighborhood a few years ago like NIMBY ninjas. She doesn’t want more shelters built, especially not in her Northeast ward, which residents say is super-saturated with group homes and other social services.
“A bed for a night is not an answer to homelessness,” she said.
Bowser sees lots of solutions: a better commitment to permanent, supportive housing for families, plans to renovate the 8,000 public housing units the city owns, work programs to help residents actually earn enough to pay the rates our crazy housing market is demanding.
“We have a fixable problem,” said Bowser, adding that the city has to be committed at budget time.
The problem is, around budget time, no one is hanging out at D.C. General, remembering the housing crisis.
We aren’t a city of cruel people. Every time I write about someone who is homeless, I get a flood of people who want to help. Our readers have dropped off duffel bags full of clothing, shopping bags stuffed with diapers, wads of cash, gift cards, checks. One woman even gave a room in her rental property to a homeless college student.
Washingtonians volunteer at homeless shelters, write letters, testify before the council and make calls. It’s time for our elected leaders to show the same commitment.
They have to come up with alternatives to the depressing, built-to-fail model of warehousing hundreds of homeless families. They have to be bold in talking to their constituents about the need for group homes, halfway houses and shelters. They have to take action on Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s (D) $100 million affordable housing plan. They have to insist that developers create more affordable housing units and mixed-income buildings for all the tax credits and flush customers they get in our town. They have to make affordable housing a priority, not an afterthought.
Fresh paint and improved bedding are great to see. I am thrilled that conditions seem to be getting better at the shelter. But that won’t change these kids’ lives.
Even if you don’t get to see those little bumblebees and pirates dancing in the rec room at the homeless shelter, don’t forget about them. They should have a street to walk down and doorbells to ring next year. That’s not too much to ask from our town.