A SHELTER, by definition, is something that protects, so a different word has to be found for the facilities at the former D.C. General Hospital. Vulnerable families there are subjected to deplorable, even dangerous, living conditions. The place should be closed but remains open even as its problems worsen. That is a stain on the District for which the mayor and D.C. Council share responsibility.
The horror of D.C. General came to public attention in March when an 8-year-old girl staying there, Relisha Rudd, disappeared, allegedly abducted by a janitor who worked there; she is still missing and presumed dead. Just how terrible the situation is for those living at D.C. General was detailed in a Post investigation. Among the findings: insect infestation so severe that children are sent to the hospital for treatment of bites; shelter workers who prey on residents for sex; crumbling facilities that leave residents without heat or water; security so lax that residents live in fear.
“I’m thankful that I have a roof over my head and my kids get meals every day. But after that, life is really a struggle,” Nordicka Burton, a mother of two, told Post reporters. No doubt, as city officials have argued, life is worse on the streets. But that doesn’t mean Ms. Burton or the shelter’s other 800 residents should have to put up with an environment in which fights and drug use are routine and services are not. Imagine if the families housed at D.C. General were middle class and had been made homeless by some natural disaster. Officials would not lecture them on how they might be worse off elsewhere. More important, they would figure out how to fix the problems, and fast.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration has made some progress locating apartments for homeless families and moving people out of D.C. General. Deputy Mayor Beatriz Otero, in a letter on this page today, said that Mr. Gray (D) asked her to develop a plan by the end of the summer for closing D.C. General; it will require the establishment of smaller emergency shelters across the District. That a strategy is being developed only in the final months of Mr. Gray’s administration speaks to how it was caught flat-footed by the spike in the number of homeless families.
The council shares blame for its unwillingness to make realistic reforms in the city’s shelter law or to cooperate in the location of new shelters. It needs to work with Mr. Gray to resolve the situation. The work has to include an examination of the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, the nonprofit that runs the shelter under a $13 million contract with the District.
Mr. Gray’s lame-duck status and the charged politics of the race to replace him add even more complexity to the situation. Let’s hope the two council members running for mayor — Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) and David A. Catania (I-At Large) — treat this issue as a problem to solve rather than political fodder.