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.