Relisha Rudd has gone missing a second time.
More than six months ago, the 8-year-old disappeared while in the company of a 51-year-old janitor at the D.C. homeless shelter where Relisha lived with her mother and three brothers. This time she has disappeared from the District’s mayoral campaign, where the second-grader’s name, life and probable death should be on the lips of all three candidates vying to run a city where hundreds of children are homeless.
Instead, Relisha’s fate — her body has never been found, but police say her abductor, Kahlil Tatum, killed his wife and then himself — went unmentioned by Muriel Bowser, David A. Catania and Carol Schwartz during a debate last week. Relisha’s name is rarely invoked on the campaign trail.
She should be a symbol. Instead, Relisha’s only tangible legacy might be leaf-green slides and monkey bars, part of a playground finally being built at the shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital after years of delay. The playground is a godsend, but there is so much more the city ought to be doing for the other Relishas at D.C. General, which as many as 600 children will call home this winter.
At last week’s debate, the candidates covered education, ethics, bikes, books, health care, height requirements and stadiums. But Relisha — who helped personify the gaping housing inequities amid Washington’s Gilded Age prosperity, who brought attention to the alarming holes in our city’s safety net, who highlighted the dysfunction of a family in crisis, a troubled school truancy policy and the stubborn conundrum of a generation of children growing up homeless — does not seem to haunt anyone.
How can this missing little girl and the disparities she represents not be a key issue in this election?
By the time D.C. voters go to the polls on Nov. 4, hypothermia season will be underway — the cold winter months when the city is legally obligated to house the homeless.
Last year was a train wreck, with the decaying, dilapidated family shelter immediately at capacity when the temperatures dropped. City officials were forced to house many families in D.C. motel rooms — all at taxpayers’ expense. Officials called it “catastrophic.” A total of about 1,500 families were housed in shelters and motel rooms, costing the city $20 million more than it had planned to spend. There was even a move to house families in rec centers, though that was quickly quashed by an outraged D.C. Superior Court judge.
And get this: The prediction for this winter, according to the Interagency Council on Homelessness, is a 16 percent increase over that calamity. That’s about 850 families that will be newly homeless between Nov. 1 and March 31.
City officials can predict this boom because of the 26 percent jump in the number of families who came looking for housing help over the summer.
This is a crisis that is getting worse before our eyes. And the three candidates need to start talking about it with a sense of urgency.
In last week’s debate, only D.C. Council member Catania (I-At Large) really cut to the heart of the issue when he was asked about D.C. General. Although he didn’t mention Relisha’s name, he said, “Homelessness is a function of a failed housing policy.”
The city’s affordable-housing crisis was barely discussed during the debate, and it was never mentioned in a report that the city issued on Relisha’s disappearance. The report acknowledged that there had been communication breakdowns among city agencies, but it exonerated officials of any real responsibility for what had happened to the little girl.
Baloney, said council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). Last week, he called the conclusions “whitewashed” and said the report had been written to protect the city from being sued.
“It wasn’t like Relisha was just out there,” he said. “She was in our care, we had her in our system every night.”
When the report was released at the beginning of this month, the mayoral candidates had to be prodded by my colleague Aaron C. Davis to respond.
The front-runner in the polls, the D.C. Council’s Bowser (D-Ward 4), described what happened to Relisha as “an unspeakable tragedy” and said she wanted all the recommendations in the report to be implemented.
Former council member Schwartz, who is running as an independent, said she continues to pray for Relisha and would order stronger background checks for those working with vulnerable populations. And she would ask for further review.
Only Catania strayed from the report’s conclusion. “I don’t believe we did everything we could,” he said. He said there should be better communication among agencies, and public schools should look at a child’s absences when they reach five, not 10.
Catania said Relisha’s case inspired the Office of the State Superintendent to budget $200,000 for two new workers who would focus exclusively on homeless students and connecting them to the services they need.
Then all three returned to their silence about Relisha, a child who should be a rallying cry for this city and for this election. Until she is, we have some serious soul-searching to do.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.