Nineteen-month-old Taniya Taylor has gotten food poisoning twice and been to a doctor at least 20 times with a viral infection, said her mother, Darlene Taylor. They live in D.C. Village, a shelter for homeless families in Southwest Washington. The Taylors sleep next to each other, crib to bed, in a first-floor room they share with another mother and child.
Taylor, 40, wiped away tears yesterday as she told a D.C. Council committee that the shelter where they have lived since August is unsanitary and dangerous to her daughter's health.
"Our kids are sick; we are sick," Taylor said. "Something has got to be done. My child is not used to this; she's just a baby."
More than 20 parents detailed similar complaints of inadequately stored food, a lack of hot water and infestations of rodents and lice. The Committee on Human Services took the unusual step of holding the hearing at the shelter, which houses 68 families at the city's southwestern tip, instead of at the John A. Wilson Building in Northwest.
Committee Chairman Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4), who said he had heard reports of poor conditions at D.C. Village over the summer, said he held the hearing there to "shine a light" and make it easier for residents to participate. Fenty, a candidate for mayor, said the D.C. Inspector General's Office should investigate shelter conditions and services.
Agency officials acknowledged yesterday that the shelter has problems. Yvonne D. Gilchrist, director of the D.C. Department of Human Services, told the committee that families were ill-served by D.C. Village because the facility was never intended to be used as a year-round shelter. It was converted from winter use to year-round use in 2002 because of increased demand.
"The facility itself is an old building and is stressed, with regular plumbing problems," Gilchrist testified. More than 200 people living together without privacy "creates difficulties with cleanliness, health issues and interpersonal conflicts."
As of Nov. 1, the agency plans to turn over the daily upkeep of the facility to two nonprofit agencies that contract with the city to provide homeless services -- the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness and the Coalition for the Homeless. Those nonprofit groups can respond to repair and maintenance requests more quickly than the government can, said Ricardo Lyles, administrator of the Family Services Administration, which covers homeless services. He noted that the agency's maintenance staff has been cut in recent years.
Gilchrist said the long-term plan is to demolish the shelter and replace it with an apartment-style facility in which homeless families will have more room and privacy.
The shelter's multipurpose room was packed with about 30 people yesterday and resembled a school auditorium. Some parents held their children; volunteers watched over other children who were seated on the floor, quietly drawing with colored markers. Like the adults in the audience, one young boy wore a sticker that read "Reform Homeless Services."
Once they learned of the hearing, some parents met each night for two weeks to prepare for it, and they held a rehearsal Tuesday, said Emily Benfer, a fellow with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless who worked with the residents.
Kenyatta Hall, a mother of three, said the residents were looking for the same kind of response from the government that the District offered for New Orleans evacuees when they arrived at the D.C. Armory last month.
"We, in our own ways, have had natural disasters," Hall said. Only two of her children live with her at the shelter because the father of her youngest son thinks that the shelter is too unsanitary, she said.
"The victims of the hurricane living at the Armory had a sea of providers available to them on site on a daily basis," Hall said. "I am here on behalf of the residents of D.C. Village to demand that my government provide the same services to me and the residents."
Gilchrist said the agency plans to open an on-site service center in January that will offer job information, access to public benefits and other services.