Outside D.C. General homeless shelter, a group of mothers stand smoking next to baby strollers. A little girl in pink pajamas whizzes up and down the sidewalk on a tiny scooter. Three little boys throw chunks of concrete into the circular driveway, which leads to an old morgue, which is not far from the D.C. jail and around the parking lot from an STD clinic and a detoxification clinic.
“This is no place for children to play,” said a volunteer. (Many of the people interviewed for this story asked that their names not be used because of the sensitivity of the situation and for fear of retaliation.)
She points to children playing on the edge of an island of trash-strewn grass in the middle of the circular driveway. “We asked the city to put up barriers so children don’t run into the street, but we received no reply.”
(Washington Post columnist Petula Dvorak reported July 3 that the city had found $450,000 to build a playground at the shelter.)
Inside the glass doors of the city’s largest shelter—home to more than 400 of the city’s poorest children–the building stands in a time warp—as if when the hospital closed in 2001, after more than 100 years, nobody bothered to clean up, remove hospital signs, barricade abandon floors and long dark corridors that creep out adults and children. The air smells thick of dust, mouse dander and old antiseptic. The lights are fluorescent, casting a blue hue against blue walls lined with wooden hand rails.
“Living here is like living in hell,” said Rosalyn Andrews, who with her two sons – 7 and 8– moved to the D.C. General shelter in December 2013.
A recent investigation by The Washington Post found a pattern of serious problems at D.C. Shelter, according to shelter documents obtained by The Post through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. Those findings include:
● Staff members, who were charged with caring for and protecting families, often preyed upon them.
● Living conditions are so poor at the deteriorating 90-year-old facility that many residents became ill, according to documents. Some residents received treatment for spider bites and pest bites. Some developed rashes caused by dirty showers and many went for days without heat or hot water.
● Threats of violence, concerns for safety and a lack of services create an environment in which residents said they lived in fear and isolation.
This is what it feels like inside the city’s largest shelter, where more than 460 children live, and where 8-year-old Relisha Rudd lived before a shelter janitor took her away from the shelter. Relisha has been missing since March. D.C. police, presuming the girl is dead, switched their search to a “recovery” effort.
In April, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) issued a statement vowing to “review the actions of all District government agencies that had contact with the girl prior to her abduction.” Gray ordered the Department of Human Services Director to develop a plan to close the shelter and vowed to move as many as 500 families out of it under a plan he called “100 Days Initiative.”
“We must continue to do everything in our power to protect the District’s most vulnerable children,” Gray said.
To the left of the lobby is a waiting room with pale blue chairs jumbled as if someone wanted to take them out but decided mid-move to leave them. A series of black and white photos of nurses and patients in the early 1900s contains a sign that says “crippled children.” Hundreds of children pass this sign daily.
“Walking into the shelter, it still looks like an old hospital. There are X-Ray signs, a sign for the gift shop and a sign that says cast-change room,” says one volunteer. “You walk in and it feels like a hospital. It doesn’t feel like home.”
Across from the sign that says “crippled children,” is a row of orange chairs, where children who arrive at the shelter after school must wait—if their parents are not yet home. “Children are not allowed to roam without a parent,” said a volunteer. “You see children sitting along the wall. They don’t even offer them enough chairs.”
One resident took a photo of a little boy in a red coat squatting near the lobby door, waiting for his father. “The little boy was so tired,” the resident said, “he fell asleep squatting in the corner.”
Inside the lobby is a security table, where a guard in a black uniform searches inside bags as residents walk through a metal detector. On the other side is another guard who looks people up and down and checks names. A few steps beyond that guard, is an elevator, where residents line up to go to their rooms. They tell the guard the floor on which they reside and the guard pushes the button.
A little girl lifts her baby brother. She slips and the baby boy falls flat on his back and hits his head against the yellowed linoleum. The boy screams.
The mother chastises the girl. “That will teach her a lesson. She knows she shouldn’t be picking him up.” The girl, her hair twisted in braids, cries quietly. But no on comforts her and the boy continues to wail.
The elevator arrives and the women ride it up. Floors 2 through five are where residents live in former hospital rooms and share communal bathrooms—separated by gender on each wing.
There are four or five guards stationed on the lobby level. On each floor—the second through the fifth–are stationed two security guards and at the end of each hall are two security monitors, who must unlock the doors of residents’ rooms. (No resident is allowed to have a key to his or her own room.)
“I moved in there May 28,” said one resident. “It was horrible. Me and my baby couldn’t sleep. She cried. Sometimes, it feels overwhelming. They treat you like you are less than them. You don’t have a key to your own room. To come back in, you have to wait for someone to open your door. Once, I stood there for seven minutes waiting for the guy to get off the cellphone.”
“My room is like a cell,” said a resident. “The room is straight box. Two beds on side. If my daughter is moving about, I have to sit down. We can’t move about at the same time. They came and taped the windows down. They don’t want you opening window. Two or three weeks ago, someone’s child jumped out a window and was on the roof playing.”
The residential hallways have common bathrooms. “Parents wash babies in the sink,” said one volunteer. “One mom who just came home with a newborn had to wash her baby in the sink. It’s cringe-worthy.”
“A lot of people mentioned rats or mice in their rooms,” said another volunteer. “In the winter, the heat is not working. Some rooms are stifling. Other rooms are frigid. There is often not hot water. There is no ventilation.”
The conditions in the building are awful, one volunteer says.
To the right of the elevator is a long, dark corridor that leads to the video visitation center, where relatives of inmates in the D.C. jail, which sits across the parking lot, visit with inmates electronically. The video visitation center is connected to the shelter by a long, dark hallway strewn with trash and gaping ceiling tiles. In a back hall lies an empty crate surrounded by trash. On a recent night a door to an abandoned hallway, leading to the building’s basement, where raccoons and rats are believed to dwell, was opened. Down the stairs was a jumble of old furniture and piles of trash.
“This place feels like it is a scene for a horror movie,” a volunteer said.
Still, one resident Ebony Priester, 26, who has six children and a baby in her lap, called the shelter a “blessing.”
“A lot of us could be on the street,” said Priester, who lived on the fifth floor for 18 months. “We get three-course meals.”
“It’s a blessing and a curse at the same time,” Priester said. “With everything good comes something bad. There are things that shouldn’t go on here. There are so many people who have been fired for taking advantage of young girls in the stairs and on the sixth floor.”
The sixth floor is abandoned and dark and full of old gurneys and trash. Recently, a volunteer noticed the stairwell door leading to the sixth floor was wide open. She reported the violation. When she returned several days later, the door was still ajar.
“This is dangerous,” a volunteer said, “but they seem like they don’t care.”