Now, his new coronavirus world has closed in on him, and he’s been reduced to a hotel room that measures about 323 square feet. He’s bored. And he feels more homeless than ever, his mom told me.
“We’re all in each other’s space, all the time,” 33-year-old Tempestt Sullivan said. She tells him the hotel is a “vacation.” An eight-month vacation.
“The schools, the people here did a really good job giving us supplies and activities for them,” Sullivan said. “But there’s just nowhere else to go. Everything is closed.
“The playground at least, that’s where he can go to get the energy out, you know?
“But we got there, and it was closed. Everywhere he goes — school, the playground, all over the city — it’s closed. I feel like the outdoors is closed, too.”
Sure, this coronavirus isolation is maddening in a suburban house, a townhouse, a condo or an apartment. The kids are bored with basketball, the trampoline, the backyard, walking the dog.
But imagine this life without all that. It’s a prison when home is a hotel room that’s being used as a homeless shelter. Where a child was killed a month ago.
That’s the case for more than 500 kids in the District. They are spread across hotels and small shelters around the city, the hidden homeless with backpacks and homework and sports practice. For most of them, being homeless is just a small part of who they are. Now, it feels like that’s all they are.
There is usually a steady stream of kids going in and out of the Quality Inn on New York Avenue in Northeast Washington, a hotel that serves as one of the city’s biggest emergency homeless shelters for families.
Though the hotel charges market rates, rents out every room and rakes in city taxpayer revenue, it bans the homeless guests from using the giant carpeted ballroom, the business room with computers or the fitness space.
The families do get their rooms cleaned and are served three meals a day. But they are not allowed to congregate in the hallways or the lobby. They are only allowed to be on their room’s floor or the floor with a laundry room.
So, normally, they go outside as much as possible.
This week, with few places to go, they’re hunkered down in their rooms.
As soon as D.C. schools shut down, Jamila Larson knew it would be tough for homeless kids.
Larson is a social worker who runs the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, a nonprofit that offers scheduled playtimes and tutoring sessions and field trips to the White House bowling alley.
The programs were all shut down for social distancing, but that didn’t mean Larson and her army of volunteers quit.
“Crowdsourcing help needed: What are some fun activities families stuck within one room of shelter hotel can do to pass the time together that requires no extra materials?” Larson asked, on her Facebook page. “All the guides I’m seeing assume a well-stocked house. We’re coming up with a one-pager of activity suggestions today as well as some free, educational apps. Help please!”
And suggestions poured in. Donations came. And last week, the volunteers came to the hotel shelters like latex-gloved elves and distributed bags of snacks, tip sheets with educational websites and activities easy to do inside with limited supplies.
They gave out toys — Play-Doh, Velcro mitts with Velcro balls and wipe-board games were especially popular. Things that keep kids busy.
“Families were thrilled,” Larson said. “They were so surprised and delighted, and the children were so excited. The moms kept saying, ‘We miss y’all’ and ‘Thank you all so much. We really appreciate you thinking of us.’ ”
She rebranded the enterprise, Playtime-to-Go, and would like to keep the donations coming as long as kids are out of school.
When I met Sullivan and Joaquin, they were out walking around the parking lot, in the drizzle. Anything to just get that little-boy energy out.
A friend came by and they all sat in the car, just to be sitting somewhere other than that hotel room.
Another mom, who didn’t want me to use her name, walked up and down the busy and depressing stretch of New York Avenue with her 6-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter.
“My son was so happy when he got on a group chat the other day,” she said. “They gave us free Internet since last year, so he was able to see his friends.”
The work packets from school and Internet access have made it bearable for her kids. But she was about to start a new job at the Giant Food warehouse two weeks ago; they offered her the perfect daytime hours that would let her go to work while the kids went to school.
“But I had to turn it down because who would be home with my kids now that there’s no school?” she said.
And she’s back to square one. Back to 323 square feet of space.
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