The new playground at the D.C. General homeless shelter. It will open with a ribbon-cutting Wednesday morning. (Petula Dvorak/The Washington Post)

The playground is driving the kids who live at the former D.C. General Hospital crazy.

Bright green slides, rings, climby things! All behind a fence.

They can’t wait to get at it after Wednesday morning, when city officials are scheduled to cut a ribbon to officially open the space where several hundred homeless children will finally be able to play safely.

But the adults who gathered at the shelter in Southeast Washington for a D.C. Council hearing Tuesday afternoon?

They can’t wait to have that playground gone by next year. And that’s a good thing.

The day before opening a playground that parents and advocates have been requesting for seven years, the city issued an ambitious proposal to shut down the city’s most miserable family shelter.

City officials want to find six buildings that can become smaller family shelters, each with about 40 or 50 units, scattered throughout the city. The money to lease and run the smaller shelters would come from the approximately $1 million a month it costs to run the huge, dysfunctional, 288-unit D.C. General shelter.

When you’re looking at those kinds of numbers, the $450,000 estimated cost of the playground is a wise way to buy 365 days of safe, healthy outdoor play for kids used to frolicking in garbage and glass-strewn parking lots.

At Tuesday’s hearing, D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) said the shelter must be shut down, that it’s a little town of 1,300 people “wholly lacking in services” and that “a hospital room does not work as a home for families.”

Four mothers testified at the hearing. They didn’t deliver any earth-shattering news.

But listening to the accounts of their lives, how they got there, provides insight into the humanity of homeless families.

One woman told me that she was raped by a relative when she was couch-surfing and trying to avoid living in a shelter.

Another told the council that her father took a job in Arizona and left her as a teenager, alone and homeless in the city, with no mother to take her in.

Another told council members about the job she had doing food prep at a local university, supporting her three children and saving for an apartment without ever getting on a list for subsidized housing.

When council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) asked the four women if any of them had been victims of domestic violence, three raised their hands. (The fourth later told me that she thought it was inappropriate to respond to the question in a public forum.)

In a big institution, children in such families can get lost, the way Relisha Rudd, the 8-year-old who lived in the shelter before she disappeared this year, was lost.

But in smaller, more-intimate buildings — with units that look and feel like apartments in real neighborhoods, next to other apartments, not the city jail, the morgue and a methadone clinic — these families have a chance to thrive.

The next mayor, whoever is elected, has to do something about this situation. And with no budget for emergency hotel rooms, a projected 16 percent increase in homeless families this winter, and 40 rooms at D.C. General condemned as living spaces, there is no choice but to act.

When the city wants to buy buildings in D.C. neighborhoods to turn into shelters, residents need to dig deep into their hearts and realize that these are just other families trying to make it in this world. Do not become yet another face turning these vulnerable people, your fellow residents, away.

Small-scale shelters are the answer, and the city has the money to make them work. All we are missing are neighbors who will welcome these struggling residents and a mayor who insists on dealing with the problem.

Developers are salivating over D.C. General. It’s a huge property with plenty of potential. So there’s no question that it will be shut down and sold. That part of the plan no one is worried about.

But let’s make sure the other part of the plan — viable, small shelters and affordable housing — also happens. Anything less would be a calamity that no new playground could fix.

Twitter: @petulad

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