The old abandoned hospital sits on a sprawling, treeless complex on the eastern edge of Capitol Hill not far from RFK Stadium. Prison buses pull up to the jail on the right. A line of recovering addicts presses against the wall in a narrow strip of shade outside the methodone clinic to the left.
Smith, 23, hugs her newborn son, Princeton, close. “I just really want to get out of here,” she tells a group of women standing in the block of shade.
“Rapid Rehousing is all they’re offering,” one woman says.
“Don’t do it,” says another. “I been through that.” Then she points to herself and smirks, as if to say, and look where I am now.
“In one year, I’m going to be able to pay $1,200 a month for an apartment?” Smith shakes her head. “It makes no sense. I’m going to end up right back in here. It’s a set up. I’m not taking it.”
Already, every family at the shelter is going through an extensive assessment to determine what kind of housing they need. Only 10 percent, those with physical or mental disabilities or addictions who will most likely never be able to hold down a job that pays the rent, are offered permanent supportive housing to keep them off the streets, Berns said. Ten percent are offered emergency help paying first and last months’ rent and a security deposit. Eighty percent are offered Rapid Rehousing.
Smith has never lived in stable housing outside what she calls “the system.”
Smith’s mother had a permanent voucher. Smith lived in a subsidized two-bedroom apartment with nine siblings until she was four, when they were all placed in foster care. She lived with 36 different foster families, was beaten by one, and had two children and was kidnapped and gang raped before she aged out of foster care . She’s been homeless ever since.
She was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder at 13 and is sometimes seized with blinding depressions that, can make it hard to get out of bed or do much of anything. Though she’s now on medication, her crashes, as she calls them, have cost her jobs in the past and led to allegations of neglect. Her daughters, now four and five, are in foster care themselves.
She’s standing in the heat outside the shelter waiting for them to come for their weekly supervised visit.
Smith had to fight to get into DC General last winter – they kept turning her away because she wasn’t pregnant enough – before a room opened up for her in March.
In five months, she’s done her best to turn the sterile, old hospital room into a nursery, with a colorful throw rug on the linoleum floor, a portable Pack and Play crib decorated with cars and airplanes and photos of her two daughters and their art work plastering the walls. But with a stroller taking up half the room, she feels boxed in.
Moving out of the shelter, getting a job and finding a stable home, is the only way she’ll ever get her girls back. She’s trying, but she worries it will take time before she gets on her feet, more time than the year or so that Rapid Rehousing can offer.
In the patch of shade in front of DC General, waiting for her daughters to arrive for their weekly visit, Smith tells the women that both her sisters had been in the shelter for close to a year each before they got permanent vouchers.
One sister received a permanent voucher through the Department of Mental Health because she’s bi-polar. Her other sister got a city-funded local voucher. Smith didn’t know that funding had been flat for local vouchers until last year, when City Council members at the last minute added money to the budget to move families out of the crowded shelter in time for hypothermia season.
The council did the same again this year.
“In order to get any type of program, a voucher, anything, you’ve got to come through here,” Smith instructs the women, while some children played peek-a-boo between their mothers’ legs.
“I heard people have messed up, and that’s the reason they don’t want to give out vouchers anymore,” says one.
“I heard you have to be on drugs or have mental health problems now to get a voucher,” says another.
“Or domestic violence.”
“You can play crazy, but if they give you medicine, they can tell through your blood stream whether you’re taking it.”
“I’m not crazy,” Smith laughs. “I’ve just been through a lot.”
“They’re not doing permanent vouchers anymore,” says one. “Like I said, Rapid Rehousing is all they’re offering.”
Smith shakes her head. “They’re lying.”