D.C.'s Compassion Stretches Only So Far

By Courtland Milloy
Monday, September 12, 2005

The District's largest emergency shelter for homeless families is called D.C. Village. But don't let the quaint-sounding name fool you. The shelter sits next to a junkyard and close to a sewage treatment plant at the city's southwestern tip, long regarded as a dumping ground.

"When they stuck us out here, they knew exactly what they were doing," said Miss Avis, a name she used to protect the identity of her children. "All us black people, like, they put us somewhere we can be forgotten."

The shelter is home to about 68 families, including about 100 children. The air is rife with junkyard dust and stench from the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Facility. The ground is contaminated -- a "brownfield," as environmentalists call it -- toxic, but supposedly not serious enough to be considered a hazard. At least not as far as the health of these homeless families is concerned.

"This place is health epidemic central," said Miss Princess, mother of two. "You name it, we got it: pinworm, skin rash, headache, asthma, spider bites, bedbugs . . . "

"Don't forget the roaches," another resident chimed in.

There was a rare moment of joy at the shelter yesterday when volunteers from the Homeless Children's Playtime Project showed up with toys and games. Children ran up to their favorite volunteers, hugged them and continued holding on as if for dear life. When the volunteers began dispensing toys and bags of nuts and fruit, the children cheered. They also brought them containers of cold, filtered water to drink, a luxury compared with what flows out of those dirty, leaking shelter faucets.

"We were having behavior problems with some of the children until we realized they hadn't eaten all day," said Jamila Larson, coordinator of the playtime project. "Now we bring nutritious food and cold, clean water, and we don't have those problems anymore."

Asked how the children feel when their once-a-week, two-hour playtime is over, Larson said, "We've had children hop in our cars and try to leave with us."

To better understand the treatment of residents at D.C. Village, consider the reception given to those who were rescued from the floodwaters in New Orleans last week and brought to live in the D.C. Armory on Capitol Hill. They were greeted with balloons, handshakes and applause from city officials; given medical attention, including mental health counseling; and assigned a cadre of emergency workers to help them get back on their feet. They receive three meals a day, access to computers, help getting children into schools, help filling out applications for public assistance and help writing résumés.

A job fair is planned for them, and affordable housing is being arranged. D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) said his office plans to compile a calendar that will list the various barbecues, other dinners, church outings, zoo trips and other social events being organized for the evacuees by area residents and nonprofit groups.

Told about this, residents at D.C. Village said they were happy for the evacuees. They said they knew how bad it feels to lose everything and they could only imagine how good it must feel to have so many people care so much.

"I wish somebody would adopt me," Miss Princess said.

A teenager was asked what improvements she'd like to see at D.C. Village: "Food that's edible."

Her friend added, "It's like nursing home food, only not sanitary."

A boy who was bouncing a worn-out basketball said, "I want to be on a football team." His mother put her arms around him and said: "The children just want to be children. But they can't be children here."

The slow response of the federal government to victims of Katrina had shamed America around the world. Now the nation's capital was attempting to refurbish that image, with D.C. officials seeming to be in competition with other cities to show the most compassion for the homeless evacuees. The deadly storm had succeeded in turning the impoverished poor of New Orleans into "innocent victims" and helped a nation see them in a more sympathetic light.

And yet, at the same time, D.C. Village is a reminder of the contempt with which we still hold people like them and the lengths we go to keep them and the suffering out of sight.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company