Homeless D.C. teenagers visit White House

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 2, 2010; B01

There were people on the White House tour Saturday morning who were probably struck by the yellow paint on the Vermeil Room's wood paneling. Or impressed by the portraits of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson in the Blue Room.

The group I came with had a different frame of reference to work with.

"The chair is hard," one of the teenagers said after pressing down on a cushion and comparing it with the pillows that her father had described sleeping on in prison.

Another teen, Kristina Richbow, 17, was stunned by all the space the Obama girls must have for their things.

She's about to lose most of her possessions. Baby pictures, yearbooks, stuffed animals -- everything Kristina couldn't fit under her cot at the homeless shelter was placed in a storage unit when her family lost its home in a foreclosure.

And now, five months later, the family is behind on storage payments, so everything might be auctioned off.

"Look at all that space," she said quietly to the giant windows high above, silk curtains pulled back to let in the light.

She was one of 15 teens from a District shelter who went to the White House for a day-long field trip that included bowling a few sets on the president's lanes and nibbling on crab cakes at the Occidental Grill next to the Willard hotel.

I thought it might be cruel, taking kids whose families are homeless to the grandest home of all. But it turned out to be an uplifting, poignant day.

The kids gathered at the shelter in the morning, dressed in their best. Their mothers took pictures and told them how proud they were before sending them down the dirty corridor to visit the most important house in the nation.

Among them were honor students, a section leader of a D.C. magnet school band, an aspiring linguist who is studying Chinese, a mother of an infant son and a track sprinter.

Some of them, despite being raised in Washington, had never seen the White House.

They are members of 192 homeless families living in shelters on D.C. General's campus, according to the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness. It is over capacity this winter, full beyond anything the city had planned for, and grew by 50 families in the past month alone. The Washington Legal Clinic said it is overwhelmed by complaints about shelter access and violations of city regulations.

The 300 or so kids there have little to do.

There is no longer a recreation room -- that was filled just last week with three more families. And the cafeteria looks like an evacuation center after a natural disaster, with rows of cots. Last week, some of the families began sleeping in the hallways.

These are mostly families that have lost jobs and homes in the past year. Most of them spent months moving from one relative's cramped house to another or staying in cheap hotels before they ended up here, in an abandoned hospital, a place that is a bandage but not a cure for their problems.

Jamila Larson, the social worker who runs the Homeless Children's Playtime Project, said she is haunted by the teens, who are far more aware of their plight than their younger siblings. Many of them wanted to tell me their stories, but not all of their friends at school know they are homeless, so few wanted their names in the paper.

The trip was organized and funded by the playtime project and its volunteers, who have Washington connections and generous friends. The kids had to write essays explaining how they are similar to three U.S. presidents to get on the tour. Most of the kids said they can relate to President Obama, but their observations were complex and moving.

One boy said it's not because of "my skin color or anything like that, but that we both strive to get what we need and not what we want."

Another teen said this about Obama's message of "change we can believe in": "I like change a lot, but sometimes it's hard to get used to all the time."

Kristina, who is waiting to hear whether she has been accepted to Harvard, dashed off her essay in about 10 minutes and included quotes from presidents Calvin Coolidge and Woodrow Wilson.

"Even though I live in a shelter and might not have the resources of other people," she wrote, "I am still determined to get into college so that I can become a doctor."

At lunch at the Occidental Grill, they took pictures of the cloakroom and the restrooms.

"I've never seen a bathroom like that -- could you believe that?" said Bianca Root, 18, who also decided that she could never work in the White House. "It's just too much. It's so big. And important. Just too much." She wants to be a nurse.

At the fancy restaurant, they unfolded napkins and held up their stemmed water glasses for a toast: "For stepping out of the shelter and into the White House!"

I just wish they didn't have to step back into the shelter.

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