Stop for a moment and imagine a homeless person.
Seeing a blanket? Raggedy pants? A panhandling cup? Are you begging that red light to hurry up and turn green?
That’s not the face of homelessness in the nation’s capital anymore.
For the first time since an annual census of the homeless began 15 years ago, homeless children and parents in the District outnumber single adults — the folks we encounter in parks and on sidewalks and median strips who often are struggling with mental illness or substance abuse.
According to the annual survey conducted in January, there were more than 4,600 children and parents who were homeless in Washington — about 1,000 more than single adults.
But it’s easy to miss the homeless kids heading to school and playing at parks or their parents waiting at bus stops or serving us a burger. Their invisibility makes it easier for everyone to be in denial about this raging crisis, easier to keep pretending that it’s something temporary that will go away.
To her credit, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has tried to help these families by guaranteeing them access to city shelters or motel rooms, whether it’s cold outside or not. She wants to spend $173 million on homeless-related services — more, as my Washington Post colleague Aaron C. Davis reported, than the combined budgets for libraries, parks and the University of the District of Columbia.
But Bowser’s plan to close the dilapidated family shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital and replace it with new, smaller shelters has come under attack for its exorbitant costs and charges that the sites selected reward major campaign contributors. Many neighbors of the proposed shelters are, predictably, completely opposed.
Meanwhile, the shelter at D.C. General is a festering mess that could stay open for years to come. As many as 600 children are living there, along with their parents. Their presence reflects the city’s long history of magical thinking when it comes to the homeless.
The abandoned hospital in Southeast Washington has been housing some of the District’s most desperate families ever since then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) closed an even worse shelter, D.C. Village, nine years ago.
But it was just temporary, D.C. officials told everyone.
At the time, the District’s gentrification was well underway. Neighborhood after neighborhood began to gleam with new restaurants, urban parks and pop-up mini-cities named by developers.
Missing was any plan for affordable housing. Instead, poor and working-class families were being priced out of a city that their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents called home.
Because their predicament was temporary, of course.
As the number of homeless families began to soar, the city paid little attention to what was happening at D.C. General. The facility’s neighbors are a jail, a methadone clinic, a clinic for people with sexually transmitted diseases and what used to be a morgue. It’s the land of Things No One Wants to See.
So little was done to make the place — frozen in time, with overturned waiting-room chairs and yellowed medical literature left behind when it was closed — safe and livable.
The heat didn’t work, the air conditioning didn’t work, rats and raccoons moved in. Paint peeled, water browned, children went to the hospital with ringworm and skin infections and bites up and down their little legs.
Over and over again, city officials said they didn’t want to spend a lot of money to fix the decrepit place because — you guessed it — it was temporary. They even resisted giving children at the shelter a playground, which should have been a no-brainer.
The city was spending millions of dollars building awesome playgrounds in neighborhoods with handfuls of children while 600 homeless kids had no place to play but a parking lot full of gravel and broken glass.
The city finally caved on the playground in 2014, after the disappearance of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd. The second-grader vanished in the company of a shelter janitor who killed his wife and then himself. Relisha is presumed dead, but her body has not been found.
Former D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) was frustrated when the city mysteriously came up with $450,000 to build a playground at D.C. General.
“This is something that could have been done all along,” he said during a hearing two years ago.
All along, the city could have acknowledged that thousands of parents and children would be edged out of the housing market.
All along, the city could have acknowledged that simply saying D.C. General is temporary — with no workable alternative in sight — won’t make it possible to close the place.
It’s time to stop pretending there’s an easy fix to our growing housing crisis. It’s time to spend the money necessary to make D.C. General a decent place for our most vulnerable children to live.
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