The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The District decided to do right by homeless children — but only after pleas, worries and questions

Dawn breaks at a Days Inn used by the District as a shelter for homeless families. (Allison Shelley for The Washington Post)

When the city failed a homeless child six years ago, Christina Gaddis got a knock on her door.

Relisha Rudd, an 8-year-old homeless girl, had gone missing. The last place she had been seen with her abductor, a janitor she met at the run-down family shelter where she lived, was at the Days Inn on New York Avenue NE.

That man had taken her to Room 245.

Gaddis and her newborn son were in Room 246.

Gaddis recalls all of this on a recent evening. She recalls how the law enforcement agents who knocked on her door asked if she had seen or heard anything. She recalls how she told them she only caught a glimpse of the girl and the man in his uniform. She recalls how, “When they told me she was missing, I immediately started to shake.”

March 1 marks the anniversary of the last time Relisha was seen, but that’s not the only reason Gaddis has found herself thinking about that still-missing child.

Gaddis is back where she was when she heard that knock: living at the Days Inn, worrying about the occupants in the rooms around her.

The mother of two has spent the past few weeks fearing that the city would once again fail homeless children. She was among the parents who called on officials in a column I wrote last fall to put in place a shuttle that would help young people at the Days Inn and nearby Quality Inn get to and from school safely and on time.

Homeless children in hotels are struggling to get to school, a group learned. It now wants D.C. officials to consider: If tourists get shuttles, shouldn’t they?

It seemed a logical, bare-minimum ask. More than 500 children are tucked into those two hotels, which the District hopes to eventually stop using to house homeless families. But for now, many of those children have to cross two busy streets to get to the closest bus stop and take several forms of public transportation to get to schools across the city. Some have been seen crossing those roads alone, or with younger siblings.

“Some of them are so small,” Gaddis says.

So small. Let that image sink in. Tiny gloves. Cartoon characters on backpacks. Untied shoelaces. Hopefully tall enough for drivers to see them.

When the shuttle started running in January — making trips between the hotels and the two closest Metro stops twice each morning and afternoon — families and advocates took it as a sign that the city had heard them, that it cared whether those children were making it to school.

They were relieved. They were also aware that because it was launched as a “pilot program,” the city could yank it away from them at any moment.

For Gaddis, that brought worries about her own children and others who had come to depend on the shuttle. “If we make these kids feel like we don’t love them, we don’t care about them, what are we showing them?” she found herself wondering.

On Tuesday, officials announced that the city would extend the shuttle service through the end of the school year.

It’s the right move.

It’s also a move that could have, and should have, come sooner. The announcement comes only after city officials created angst among homeless families, heard pleas from advocates and fielded questions from the media.

Families were initially told the service would stop at the end of February. They were then informed that the last day would be March 13.

On Monday, that date still seemed firm enough that D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) sent a letter to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) calling for the service to be extended at least through the end of the school year. She also encouraged the administration to fund it in the upcoming budget.

“Although inexpensive and modest in scope, this shuttle service is an essential and long-needed resource for these families,” reads the letter.

The letter describes the estimated cost to extend the shuttle through the end of the school year — $200,000 — as “a drop in the bucket compared to the benefit this service will provide to families.”

What the letter doesn’t say, but what city officials were well aware of even as they hedged their commitment to those homeless families, was that the city funds another shuttle in a different neighborhood.

That shuttle runs through Capitol Hill.

A letter in May to D.C. Council members from the Committee of the Whole shows that shuttle’s funding has not come without disagreements — but it has come.

“The Mayor’s proposed budget also did not include funds to continue shuttle bus services for the Capitol Hill Cluster School, which is unique for its three separate campuses,” that letter reads. “The Council previously allocated funds to provide shuttle bus services as a solution to transporting students across its campuses. The Council allocates $260,000 to DCPS to restore the cut and fully fund the shuttle bus services.”

City officials didn’t agree to fully fund the shuttle at the hotel in the fall after learning that the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project had discovered that many of the children in those hotels were arriving late to school and missing entire days.

City officials also didn’t agree to fully fund it earlier this month after the slaying of 11-month-old Makenzie Anderson, who had been living at the Quality Inn.

Following Makenzie’s death, Jamila Larson, who heads the Playtime Project, issued a statement expressing concern that “too many children are slipping through the safety net” and shock that the shuttle service was ending “because our wealthy city can’t figure out how to keep funding it for 3½ more months.”

On Tuesday, after learning the city would extend the service, she offered this statement: “We are pleased that DC is now willing to put the hundreds of children living in the shelter motels on equal footing with the services that children receive via the Capitol Hill Cluster School bus. . . . This section of New York Avenue where mostly black children experiencing homelessness reside is a far cry from a thriving neighborhood with access to public transportation, places to play, walkable communities and affordable shopping. Getting to school should not be seen as a luxury.”

Brian White, a native Washingtonian and member of the D.C. Education Coalition for Change (DECC), spent a morning watching families get on the shuttle. The seats weren’t all full, but that didn’t surprise him. He says conversation with residents and the driver gave him the sense that families were still learning about the service.

What he left knowing for certain was that those children had already lost enough — and should never have to worry about also losing that shuttle.

“Who can imagine what they have to do just to sit in class, and you’re going to take away the one way they get to and from school?” White says. “There is no excuse. It’s 2020. We live in one of the richest cities in the world. There is no reason we can’t sustain a shuttle bus for students for a year.”

Before the shuttle was put in place, Gaddis described a long, unpredictable commute that involved taking three buses to her sons’ school. Now, her 6-year-old son is staying with a relative, and she and her 4-year-old take the shuttle to the Metro, go one stop and then walk to his school. He is there early enough to get breakfast, and when they take the shuttle home, they have enough time to read books before bed.

“It gives us a sense of normalcy,” she says.

When I tell her about the Capitol Hill shuttle, she doesn’t believe me at first. She then questions why a shuttle was seen as needed there before at the hotels.

“Capitol Hill is fine,” she says. “Capitol Hill is not an area where people are shot or coming up missing.”

It’s not a place where 8-year-old girls vanish with janitors, and grown-ups remain haunted by knocks on their hotel doors.

Read more from Theresa Vargas:

A 9-year-old girl got people to finally stop thinking of the peach-colored crayon as the ‘skin-color’ crayon

Following a disease diagnosis and tough senior year, she thought she had graduated from high school. She hadn’t.

Claire’s Journey: Their 8-month-old daughter was admitted to the hospital for a common virus. Then they discovered her brain was ‘shrinking.’