The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘They say we can’t play’: What life is like for D.C.’s forgotten homeless kids

Mumia Ajah Wood, 2, plays during an all-too-brief Homeless Children’s Playtime Project session this week at the Quality Inn on New York Avenue in Northeast Washington. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
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There is a pool, yes. And a ballroom, sure.

But the more than 850 kids living in D.C. motels are not on vacation.

“No Playing on the Hotel Premises” announce signs plastered at one of the motels used to bandage the city’s housing crisis. The motels all have rules, and a lot of them are very specific.

For these kids, the pool is permanently closed, the front desk is a security guard, the ballroom is locked and the halls and parking lot aren’t for running.

Little things make life strange — there is no table in the room to do homework, eat dinner or color with crayons. They live life on a bed or on the floor.

“They say, ‘No running.’ And they say we can’t play,” said the 5-year-old in a purple tutu and Superman cape when she did, at last, get the chance to play and built a sprawling train track along the curlicues of the ballroom-floor carpet.

Twice a week at the Quality Inn on New York Avenue in Northeast Washington, the ballroom doors are unlocked and kids get to run. They get to laugh out loud. They get to dance and put on costumes and push baby-doll strollers and vroom-vroom cars across the fancy carpet.

For a little more than two hours a week, Key’Ziyah Adams, the super-ballerina, and her friends live in a world of “yes.”

“All the other times, it’s no, no, no,” said the girl’s mother, Evangela Adams, 25. “The guards tell us that they’ll put us out or call the police on us if they play anywhere.”

Those two golden hours come thanks to a group — the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project — determined to inject the tiniest bit of childhood into these children’s lives.

“It’s what saves us,” said Nicole Wood, who has been living in the motel for nearly two months with her 2-year-old and 6-month-old, no longer able to afford her $1,800 -a-month, one-bedroom apartment. “They love this time, and they need it.”

In the nation’s booming capital, the problem of homeless children is profound and largely hidden.

For years, up to 600 of them were warehoused in the abandoned D.C. General Hospital in Southeast with their parents — mostly moms. Motels have long been used to house the overflow. The city has claimed the only stretch of affordable hotels in one of the nation’s top tourist destinations and made it the shelter district.

‘Where do we go now?’ There is no plan to solve homelessness once the shelter closes

In 2016, the city spent $30 million to house homeless families — about 1,400 children — in motels. The number of homeless families has fallen over the past two years, which is a great thing. This year, the budget sets $16 million aside — for nearly 900 kids — to house families at the motels, according to city documents.

The positives? Each family now has a private bathroom — an improvement from the humiliating, dirty and dangerous group showers and bathrooms at D.C. General. They are not living in cars or on the street. The hotel rooms are decent, the lobbies are all sectionals and potted plants.

The negatives? There is no common space where anyone is allowed to congregate. While D.C. General has a Metro stop, the public transportation along a roaring and run-down New York Avenue is limited to bus stops. The heart and soul of the hospital shelter — the playrooms, teen lounges, tutoring, babysitting and social programs provided by the Playtime Project — are gone, splintered into half a dozen temporary pop-up locations.

And, of course, these children and their parents are still homeless.

So while the nation — rightfully — is outraged by the separation of children at the border, we have disastrous childhoods unfolding right here, too.

Whenever I spend time with D.C.’s homeless kids, my heart hurts. How can this be their fate in a city awash in wealth?

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) is living up to her promise to close and demolish D.C. General. The remaining 272 children will be moved out of there by September. But the smaller shelters designed to replace the old hospital, scattered across the city, aren’t finished. So most of those kids are probably motel-bound.

Playtime Project, long a savior for homeless kids, has struggled to offer the same services in the motels that it offers at D.C. General.

The project is the brainchild of a social worker named Jamila Larson.

Before she came along, homeless kids at D.C. General played amid the broken glass and cracked asphalt of the hospital parking lot, spending long days wandering the creepy halls and looking through dirty windows at decaying medical rooms. Larson began transforming all that 13 years ago when she formed one of the city’s most beloved nonprofits.

Just because kids are homeless doesn’t mean they don’t need to play

Playtime Project, which operates on $800,000 a year, is so successful because the goal is simple. Its slogan is “Families Deserve Housing. Children Deserve Play.” The housing crisis is a complex mess of politics and money, generational dysfunction and corporate greed. The children aren’t to blame for any of it. So giving them a chance to play during crucial stages of their physical and emotional development can make all the difference for their futures.

On the same night the kids at the Quality Inn were getting precious hours of play, Playtime was hosting rookie Redskins player Vontae Diggs at D.C. General. Diggs told the kids about the time his family experienced homelessness when he was growing up. NFL players, actress Halle Berry, talk-show host Steve Harvey — those kids could grow up to be any one of those adults who had once been homeless.

At D.C. General, Larson created a full-blown kids program, with a baby room and babysitting, story time and play spaces, a teen lounge, tutoring and field trips that took kids to museums, ballgames and even the White House. It’s where hundreds of kids learned to walk, to read, where they filled out college applications and hashed out relationship problems.

But now? The nonprofit is losing a lot of the volunteers who relied on Metro to get to D.C. General. Scattering the program across so many sites means Playtime needs more coordinators and volunteers, Larson said.

Plus, the motels set the terms. At the Quality Inn, the motel allows two slots a week for Playtime Project. A group of volunteers spreads out play mats and hauls out the toy kitchens for what amounts to about 90 minutes of furious play before they have to put everything back and lock up the space so it can remain empty for five other nights.

The teens? They come, too, because they are searching for something between the crime-pocked hustle of New York Avenue and the confines of a bed, a luggage rack and a closet they share with their families. There’s not enough room — even in a ballroom — for teens and choo-choo trains. Everyone knows that.

When Larson recently asked the motel for another night so that the preteens and teens can have their own space, motel management said sure. For $500 a night. And the small nonprofit simply can’t afford that.

Twice a week at the Quality Inn, 8 p.m. is the saddest time. It’s when the storage tubs come out and the trains and costumes are put away. The kids have to be quiet. Playtime is over.

To donate or volunteer with the Playtime Project, go to

Twitter: @petulad

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