Where’s the outrage over 600 homeless children?


The District’s homeless shelter in what once was D.C. General Hospital. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)
Courtland Milloy
Columnist February 12, 2013

Poor people, what a bummer.

Just when the District is about to don a world-class crown of wealth and prosperity, up pop these homeless folks and their 600 homeless kids trying to ruin the coronation.

Families residing at the D.C. General shelter in Southeast are hogging the spotlights with complaints that “the building is infested with mice, bed bugs and water bugs,” according to a recent report by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “Some families have also reported being bitten by spiders.”

What do these families expect? There’s a comfy two-bedroom penthouse for sale at CityCenter downtown for $5 million. Don’t want to itch? Get rich.

Besides, if being cramped in a cold, unsafe and unsanitary city-run shelter was really all that bad, wouldn’t D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray be outraged? Gray (D) used to be executive director of Covenant House, a nonprofit organization for homeless teenagers.

“I’m over at that shelter all the time, and I don’t think anybody can credibly say that we aren’t doing things to help the homeless,” Gray told me.

But the crux of that legal clinic report details the kind of health hazards that would be a violation of D.C. law.

“I haven’t seen any bedbugs,” the mayor demurred. “I’m always interacting with those young people over there and, frankly, I’ve never seen any evidence of what that advocacy group is talking about.”

According to its report, here’s what the legal clinic is talking about: “Too many vulnerable families have already been turned out into the cold.”

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), contemplating a run for mayor, goes a good bit further than Hizzoner in expressing his dismay. He ought to, given his background. Wells was a social worker for the District’s child protective services agency. And then he became director of the D.C. Consortium on Child Welfare — 20 nonprofits devoted to saving at-risk children.

“I’ve called the situation inhumane,” Wells told me. “I’ve tried to find other sites in the city where people wouldn’t be all packed together, but no other council members would agree to them. They’d say, ‘Oh, no, that can’t happen in my ward.’ ”

When will homeless people get the message? Not in my back yard, front yard, sidewalk, steam grate, alleyway, doorway, Metro tunnel, park bench, storefront or anywhere else within the city limits if at all possible.

“A woman who was more than eight months pregnant was turned away . . . and told to return when she delivered the baby,” the legal clinic report said. “In multiple cases, the father of the children, the fiancé of the mother or an over-18-year-old child was not allowed to be placed with the family in the shelter.”

Why let a father get in the way of a good stereotype about irresponsible men and promiscuous women? It’s not like people are looking for reasons to sympathize with these people. If the well-to-do really cared about what was on the other side of the economic divide, it never would have gotten so wide in the first place.

“In the current system, it is exceedingly more difficult for families who are homeless to access shelter during the winter than it is for unaccompanied adults,” the legal clinic report said. “The system’s front door has been blocked by unlawful procedures that have created almost insurmountable obstacles for far too many families trying to access emergency shelter this winter.”

If leaving the homeless out in the cold was morally apprehensible, you just know council members David Catania (I-At Large) and Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) would be in a cursing match to see which one would be the first to call for immediate change in shelter policy.

However much the city spent last year providing services to the homeless, it should have been more in a city with a budget surplus of more than $400 million. Sure, Mayor Gray has pledged to use $100 million of the surplus for affordable housing.

But what, exactly, is “affordable” in a region where one in seven people earns more than $191,000 a year?

In his State of the City address last week, Mayor Gray hinted at the magnitude of economic forces that are driving gentrification in the nation’s capital.

“For instance, when developers of CityCenter were hobbled by the tight domestic credit market, the government of Qatar stepped in with an investment of $700 million to make it happen,” he said.

Maybe the homeless didn’t get that memo either: There is no Qatar for poor people. D.C. General is just a way station on the road to nowhere. Look around that shelter: On one side, the D.C. jail; on the other, the city morgue. Complain all you want about bed bugs, baby. But this is the last stop before leaving the city, one way or another.

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com

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