Correction: This article originally stated that a sexual assault occurred at a city homeless shelter this year. The assault was alleged; no charges have been filed. The article has been corrected.
The disappearance of an 8-year-old homeless girl living in a D.C. shelter in March 2014 triggered an avalanche of promises to fix a dysfunctional system for caring for the city’s least fortunate families.
A year later, little has changed. And little is expected to, for now. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who campaigned on a promise to close the shelter where Relisha Rudd lived with her mother and brothers, is preparing to announce that it will take 18 months, and perhaps longer, to get it done.
What happened to Relisha, who has not been found, isn’t the only mystery the city is trying to solve. The other is how to improve what by all accounts is a broken system sheltering a record number of families this winter but doing little to help them find permanent homes.
Relisha’s abduction became a symbol of the decay and dysfunction of the shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital where she lived, and it highlighted what many describe as the city’s inadequate services for the homeless.
As details emerged, then-Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) vowed to conduct a complete review of how the city had handled the case. He also promised to close D.C. General within a year. He said he would work with new intensity to get families out of the building and into their own homes. In the primary election she won that spring, Bowser pummeled Gray for his handling of the issue.
More recently, city officials have said some changes have been made at D.C. General, such as additional case managers, extra police patrols, a new playground and improved building maintenance.
But homeless advocates say those actions are mainly small-bore and fail to address the underlying issues that leave families vulnerable. No plan is in place to remove the roughly 250 families living at D.C. General. On a recent morning, a woman watched a child pick up a used hypodermic needle from the trash-strewn sidewalk in front of the shelter.
In addition, some are concerned that the city is creating a new D.C. General as it deals with a surge in homelessness this winter by sheltering several hundred families at hotels on a run-down strip of New York Avenue in Northeast Washington with little support or oversight. Another Relisha, they say, could easily fall through the cracks.
“I frankly don’t think the District is a better place for poor children than it was a year ago,” said Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center. “I don’t think we are taking seriously getting to the deep root causes of homelessness. We have a shortage of housing. We don’t have a good job-training program. We don’t have wraparound services and we have too few mental health services for families. We may be chipping away at the problem, but that’s not fast enough for these kids.”
Authorities think Relisha disappeared after her mother left her in the care of Kahlil Tatum, a janitor at D.C. General who befriended the girl.
The child was last seen with Tatum on March 1, 2014. In late March, Tatum’s wife was found dead with a gunshot wound to the back of her head in an Oxon Hill hotel room. Tatum was found dead 11 days later in a shed in a Northeast Washington park, with an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound.
City officials said at a news conference last week that they were not giving up the search.
The high-profile case shocked the city and shone a light on D.C. General, which, wedged between a jail, a former morgue and a clinic for people with sexually transmitted diseases in Southeast, housed more than 500 children at the time.
Bowser and others criticized Gray on the campaign trail for his approach to the city’s homeless problem — particularly his efforts to keep additional families from entering shelters, which he said were meant to steer people to longer-term housing. Bowser vowed to be more humane.
A week after his defeat, Gray called for D.C. General’s closure. He set a goal of moving out 500 families by July; by mid-October, nearly 400 families had been moved. Also in October, Gray issued a plan, including a transition to smaller, more manageable neighborhood shelters that could house as many as 50 families each.
The city would lease or convert six buildings citywide at a cost of $52 million — and close D.C. General by October 2015. Gray’s plan included almost no timeline for how to achieve that goal, and it left wide open the criteria for what might constitute a shelter.
Gray officials said they received several inquiries to a five-page solicitation to house the smaller shelters by the time the administration packed up at the end of the year.
Then Bowser took office and the cold weather arrived, and the homeless kept coming.
Bound by a campaign promise to be more welcoming to families, Bowser and her aides could barely keep pace with the surge of families seeking shelter — let alone implement longer-term solutions.
D.C. General is full again, and it will remain that way for another summer, another winter and beyond — all while many of the same perils there for children remain.
A Washington Post investigation of D.C. General last summer found an unhealthy facility. Residents alleged that shelter employees had propositioned them for sex, attempted tax scams and even fathered a child with one of them. Nearly 30 residents were taken to the hospital or forced to seek treatment for bug bites, rashes and other ailments picked up at the shelter in recent years. Heating and water problems were chronic.
Residents interviewed recently said they have seen improvements, but the shelter remains a challenging place to live. One resident said she went without heat for a week this winter; others complained about mice and roaches. In January, city officials said there was an alleged sexual assault. In February, a contagious skin disease spread from one child to two others.
“People are outside smoking and doing drugs.. . . It’s chaos,” said Andrea Pitts, who lives at the shelter with her husband and 5-month-old son. “It’s not a place where you want to raise your kids. There is staff that cares about their job and staff just collecting a paycheck. You can better yourself, but I think of it like a jail.”
Meanwhile, the city has dealt with the homeless surge this year by offering more than 500 families — including almost 1,000 children — open-ended motel stays that have gobbled city resources and forced the administration to scurry to find two, and then four, new motels to accommodate more families.
Some D.C. Council members say that children are even more vulnerable in motels than at D.C. General. There are no security cameras recording the arrivals and exits of children and no central door to restrict access.
Bowser’s administration has offered few details on how she will fulfill her campaign promise to end homelessness. Officials have pledged a complete “systems change” by 2018 so that shelter use is “brief, rare and not recurring” — but little more.
Director of Human Services Laura Zeilinger is leading the effort to draft a specific plan, which calls for closing D.C. General by the fall of 2016. But that can happen, she said, only in concert with new coordination of support services, shelter for single adults and construction of hundreds of millions of dollars in housing.
A draft of the blueprint will be released as early as March 16. Some details of Gray’s plan are expected to survive. Four of the sites identified by Gray’s team last fall, for instance, remain viable, Zeilinger said. But they can accommodate fewer than 100 families, meaning nearly twice as many units must be found elsewhere.
In addition, Bowser’s team must persuade six or more neighborhoods in a gentrifying city to accept new homeless shelters.
Despite the hurdles, advocates say they are optimistic about the experienced team Bowser has put in place, including Deputy Mayor Brenda Donald and Zeilinger, a former Obama administration official. They say meetings with officials have been positive and they are encouraged that the mayor announced new “housing navigators” to help pair the city’s 4,000 homeless with permanent housing and pledged $100 million annually for affordable housing. The lack of affordable housing is one of the city’s root causes of homelessness.
That’s a far cry from their view in September, when Gray released a review of how the city handled Relisha’s case. The report found that “no justifiable government actions” would have prevented the tragedy — and homeless advocates panned it.
Even with signs of progress, D.C. General residents will have to wait for a better home.
Renae Garrett, 21, said she is hoping to get into an apartment-style shelter with her two children. She said her three months at D.C. General have been long enough.
“They are trying, but what they are doing is not enough,” Garrett said.