D.C.’s homeless children deserve a great place to play. It’s time to build them one.

Petula Dvorak
Columnist April 10

There is a $35 million playground renaissance blossoming in the nation’s capital.

Two dozen amped-up playgrounds have been unveiled across the District in recent months, with water slides and splash parks, a set of equipment shaped like musical instruments, a Disney-looking Native American village, a freestanding rhythm spinner, a zip line and an aerial rope slide. Except in the place where hundreds of homeless children live. Outside D.C. General, the abandoned hospital in Southeast Washington that serves as the city’s largest family homeless shelter, there are patches of crumbling asphalt and nothing resembling 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

A little girl roars into the parking lot on her pink bike, its white tires crunch-crunching broken glass along her way.

“Don’t pick that up, Baby!” screams a mom as her toddler runs from her, squealing and holding a cigarette butt in his fat hand.

Around the corner, kids climb in and out of a rotting cardboard box and throw bottles into overgrown weeds.

This is the outdoor space where nearly 600 children play, and where 8-year-old Relisha Rudd spent nearly two years of her life before she disappeared more than a month ago. Although volunteers who work with the kids at the shelter have been campaigning for an outdoor playground for nearly a year, the city has said no and no again. That has to change.

It’s shameful enough that the mayor and the D.C. Council can’t solve the affordable-housing crisis and close the shelter at D.C. General. But if they are going to warehouse children next to a morgue, a methadone clinic and a jail, it’s a disgrace not to give them a beautiful play space like the ones the rest of the city’s children get.

Trying to build a safe place for children is a complex endeavor, involving multiple agencies, studies and surveys, officials said.

Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Beatriz “BB” Otero told me that the site is “problematic.” In January, city engineers pinpointed five places that they thought a playground could be built.

“None of those sites was adequate,” Otero said. The problems ranged from too much traffic to being too hidden to possibly having utilities underground, she said.

And the city is also reluctant to build a playground in an area known as Hill East, Otero explained. That’s the parcel of land that includes D.C. General and is supposed to become a mix of market-rate and affordable housing, retail and office space, connecting the rest of Capitol Hill to the banks of the Anacostia River.

Just one problem: the plan was created in 2003 and progress has been glacial. Meanwhile, for the past seven years, hundreds of children have been living in old hospital rooms, where families are not allowed to cook meals for themselves, where there is no place to do laundry, no tubs to bathe infants and no place to play outside.

Kids need to play and run. It’s primal and necessary to their development, according to Pat Rumbaugh, a Takoma Park physical-education teacher known as the Play Lady who has written a book on the cognitive, emotional and social benefits of play.

To me, the city’s site analysis sounds like a bunch of red tape and liability-clouded excuses. Right outside the shelter, in the center of a traffic circle, is a weed-choked area where residents held a candlelight vigil for Relisha that could make a great playground. If the traffic is a big deal, fence the playground.

Worried that it’s hidden? Um, kids can find it. Think there’s opposition to a playground from not-in-my-back-yard residents of Capitol Hill? Nope. The ANC declared its support for the project at its meeting this week.

A new playground won’t even cost the city much money. Jamila Larson, the founder and executive director of the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, has partnered with Pepco and other businesses on this project. They promise a generous contribution to basically fund the whole darn thing.

So what’s the real holdup? We’ve been building playgrounds in our neighborhoods for decades.

Let’s take a look at the fabulous park in the Palisades in Northwest Washington, where the median household size is 2.2 people and only 22 percent of the homes have children living in them. Only 8 percent of that neighborhood’s population is younger than 10. And yet, Palisades residents just got a gorgeous Native American-themed playground that rivals Great Wolf Lodge with its splash park, water slides, giant lodges and climbing boulders.

I don’t begrudge the neighborhood that amenity. The property taxes paid for it, sure. But the kids at D.C. General, where at least 60 percent of the population is younger than 10, get zilch.

“What we need right now is for residents to contact their local representatives, to write, to call and tell them that all children in the city deserve a safe place to play,” Larson said.

I understand that the city wants anything it builds for kids to be safe. And I believe that Otero — a longtime children’s advocate — totally understands the need. And I know that building a District play space isn’t as easy as Dad assembling a swing set on the weekend.

But when Eastern Market was gutted by a fire in 2007, the city had a temporary, $1.5 million market erected within months. We didn’t even have to go through manchego withdrawal, it was so fast.

The same city can build a playground — even a temporary one — for its 600 homeless kids. Because whether or not the site engineers and city lawyers give their approval, those children will still be outside, crunching through broken glass, dodging the cars, playing and pretending they are someplace — anyplace — else.

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

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