It was a little hard to leave, because she and Relisha Rudd were inseparable back when they were 7 and 8 and living in the homeless shelter at D.C. General — they were best friends who did everything together.
She’s 10 now. And it’s even harder to be homeless again and back in that decrepit shelter.
Because being back means dad’s landscaping job went south. Being back means riding the school bus to the very last stop, so no one else knows where the homeless kids live.
Being back means constant reminders of the friend who disappeared.
The 10-year-old girl hanging upside down, her hair beads click-clacking as she swung on the shelter’s playground bars, could have been Relisha.
“Everyone says I look just like her,” the girl with a beautiful smile and puppy dog earrings said as soon as she flipped back upright again. “People always said that when we were friends, too.”
They were right. And you could imagine how Relisha would look if we could see her at 10, if her big brown eyes were as sparkling and happy as this little girl’s are. If they didn’t stay in that sad gaze frozen at age 8 that was plastered on missing posters all over the city. She is presumed dead, but her body has never been found.
This week marks two years since the safety net of city workers who were supposed to help kids like Relisha realized that she was missing. It’s a little more than two years since the 10-year-old girl on the playground said goodbye to Relisha and goodbye to a friendship forged in the traumatic world of shelter life.
“We did everything together. We played, we did Girls on the Run, my daddy took us to a park with water spraying everywhere,” she remembered.
Kahlil Tatum, the shelter’s janitor who disappeared with Relisha before he killed his wife and then himself, showered those two girls with gifts and compliments.
“He was our favorite monitor,” the 10-year-old girl said. “He was so nice to me. He gave me a D.C. United blanket.”
He also invited her to come over to play at his house. “But my dad didn’t let me,” said the girl who could have been Relisha. “But then we got to move out. We got an apartment.”
That was two years ago.
“We saw it on the news, that [Relisha] was missing, that she was snatched,” said Charles Simpkins, 37, the single dad raising his whip-smart, math-loving daughter.
“I couldn’t believe it. He wanted to take my daughter to his house, he asked me,” Simpkins said. “But I wasn’t going to let her go anywhere without me.”
These past few months have been tough on his daughter.
When they were out of the shelter and living in an apartment, when he was earning money doing landscaping and sometimes brought his daughter with him on jobs, she didn’t have to think about Relisha all the time.
She gets straight A’s on her fourth-grade homework assignments. She knows her times tables cold and wants to be a mathematician working with computers when she grows up.
Razor sharp, charming and funny, she asked me to take her picture. But she also doesn’t tell any of her friends at school that she and her dad are back in the homeless shelter. So I’m not using her name or her picture.
“We just couldn’t keep up with the housing, you know. The payments,” her dad explained.
They personify the relentless cycle of homelessness in the nation’s capital.
Father and daughter got out of the shelter and into an apartment through the Rapid Rehousing Program, which requires families to pay escalating portions of the rent in a city of soaring housing prices. Often, they can’t make it work.
So some of the kids who knew Relisha are back in the shelter again, for a second turn.
“My kids played with Relisha,” said a woman who used to walk up to the park on 17th Street in Southeast Washington with her kids and Shamika Young, Relisha’s mom.
Like Simpkins, she was given an apartment but couldn’t make the rent and pay for child care on a $14-an-hour job.
In December, she and her two children, ages 4 and 6, had to move back into the shelter, which feels very different now. Staffers and residents used to joke and commiserate and chat together. Not now.
“I can see a difference in the way people interact with each other,” she said. “They don’t trust each other anymore. Even if there are really good-hearted people who work here? Nobody trusts them now. There’s a wall between us.”
Is that going to be Relisha’s legacy? It can’t be.
“She put [D.C. General] on the map,” said Jamila Larson, who is the executive director of the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, which is one of the shining lights at the shelter.
Relisha is always on Larson’s mind, especially this month. The little girl was active in the Playtime Project’s programs.
The lovely yellow-and-green playground that Larson fought for seven years to build is there because of Relisha, she said.
“And maybe our new teen center, too,” she said.
The city made 26 recommendations for improving the shelter after a report on Relisha’s disappearance.
And the D.C. auditor released a scathing report just last week on the performance of the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, the contractor that runs the shelter, in 2014 — the year Relisha disappeared.
The audit found that the partnership, which had a $66.5 million contract with the Department of Human Services to manage homeless services, missed payments in both the Rapid Rehousing and Permanent Supportive Housing programs (the ones to help get people out of shelters), gave wildly different payments to subcontractors, let shelter beds go unused and didn’t have case management for at least 18 families.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) is pushing a plan to close D.C. General and replace it with smaller shelters throughout the city.
But even that plan is troubled.
Many of the sites proposed for smaller, more manageable and more humane facilities are owned by major donors to Bowser’s campaign, according to a report by The Washington Post’s Aaron C. Davis and Jonathan O’Connell.
The landowners stand to make a tenfold profit if they lease their holdings back to the city for homeless shelters, records showed.
Meanwhile, hundreds of the city’s most vulnerable kids keep finding themselves back at the place haunted by Relisha.
It’s hard to go back. Just ask them.
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