Petula Dvorak
Petula Dvorak
Columnist

Poor kids need champions

Mitt Romney mentioned “poor kids” in Wednesday’s debate. Then he corrected himself to say “lower-income kids, rather.”

He was right the first time. Poor kids.

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That’s all I can think when I hear the stories we’ve told again and again, about kids in the nation’s capital sleeping in laundromats, train station toilets and bus shelters while mega-condos sprout all around them.

Poor kids.

More than 30 percent of the District’s 100,000 children live below the poverty line, and more of them are living amid the plenty of neighborhoods that are otherwise thriving, according to the D.C. Kids Count Collaborative report released Thursday.

And the way they exist, in the shadows and darkness, while we tweet about Big Bird and play wonky drinking games is tough to stomach.

Take the story of a 27-year-old woman with a 2-year-old who doesn’t want me to use her name because her family doesn’t know all the details of her desperation.

Believe it or not, proving you’re homeless in order to get a spot in a city shelter and onto a 20-year waiting list for an apartment isn’t easy.

She had to provide signed letters from friends and family testifying that she and her child aren’t staying with them. She had been trying to gather these letters for a couple of weeks now, with her 2-year-old in tow. She lost her job at a local charter school because of nerve damage, and now she has cervical cancer. She didn’t work enough hours to get full benefits, and she couldn’t find a similar job that would pay enough to afford housing and child care.

After her fourth or maybe fifth trip to the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center on Rhode Island Avenue NE, where housing assignments are made, she sat at the counselor’s desk, and her 2-year-old became whiny and clingy.

“Mommy, I’m sleepy. Are we going to sleep on a choo-choo train? Or bus? I wanna go on choo-choo train.”

The counselor tilted his head and asked what was up with that.

Turns out, the only way she could find a safe, covered place for her son to sleep was to get on a bus or train. Night after night, they’d ride the Metro to the end of the line, her son sleeping in her arms to the sway of the car. Until they got to the end of the line and had to switch.

Once Metro closed for the night, they’d settle in at a bus station or train station restroom. “But they put us out of those, too,” the woman told me.

So her best bargain was to get on one of the buses that go to New York. If she got to the place soon enough, she could get a ticket to New York for $14. More than four hours of safe, dry, sleep.

When they got to New York, they’d get right back on the bus to Washington.

“It was cheaper than a hotel,” she told me.

The counselor actually cried when she explained it to him, and he waived all the paperwork, she said. On Thursday, she finally got into a subsidized efficiency.

For a child like hers, it’s going to take more than school choice to get him to the top. He needs a floor beneath him to get into the game.

And that’s not the stuff talked about in presidential debates.

In the District, there are beds and spaces at a family shelter, but city officials are reserving them for hypothermia season, when they are legally mandated to provide shelter.

As of Wednesday night, there were 130 empty rooms at the D.C. General shelter, said Marta Beresin, staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic, who demanded that the city find the money to house its homeless families.

“Budget choices are policy choices. It’s as simple as that,” she said. “As a policy, do we want to ensure that children aren’t sleeping in unsafe places in our city? Is this a priority for us?”

D.C. Council members Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) held a news conference last month slamming the city for not using a $14 million budget surplus in the juvenile justice agency to find housing for families today.

And to make matters worse, D.C. officials said this week that they are considering closing the waiting list for affordable, subsidized housing. Washington Post colleague Mike DeBonis reported that there are more than 67,000 households on the list and that, get this, the waiting time for a one- or two-bedroom apartment is now more than 20 years.

Poor kids. They won’t even be kids anymore by the time their parents get housing.

In the presidential debate, the kitchen-table issues that families, middle-class and poverty-level, deal with daily — affordable housing, child care, family leave — were largely ignored. Big Bird — and the target on his back — was about all the poor kids got from the men who want to set the course for the future of America.

The story of devastating childhood poverty is not unique to the District. Census data showed that last year, about 22 percent of the nation’s kids lived in poverty, a figure that has grown over the past 10 years. That means in the 2032 election, almost a quarter of U.S. voters will have grown up in desperate households. That’s the problem we have to fix. Say it: Poor kids.

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

 
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