The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Where do I go now?’ In D.C., fear as a decrepit homeless shelter is finally closing.

The family homeless shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital in 2014.
The family homeless shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital in 2014. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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The developer’s banner stretching across construction fencing promises beautiful apartments, with floor-to-ceiling windows, trees and flower beds, a little pool of blue water.

“Is that a little pool for us?” a 9-year-old boy who passes the banner every day asked his mom.

No, it is not for him or any of his friends. It is a fountain, actually. And it won’t be for the 400 kids who live here right now, in the largest family homeless shelter in the nation’s capital.

The families will be moved out soon, and that fountain will be for the people who can afford to live in one of the 91 luxury apartments being built where the shelter now stands.

Next week, the last family to ever check in to the former D.C. General Hospital in Southeast Washington will walk through its doors — and metal detectors — and settle in. But they will be moved back out in a matter of months.

And that should be a good thing, right? The decaying hospital, situated beside a jail, a methadone clinic and a former morgue, made a lousy place for the thousands of families who have cycled through it over the past decade.

It was a horror show, with rodent infestations, perennial mold blooms, disease, destruction, water problems, air problems. Residents reported that guards traded the better rooms and better treatment for sex. Then, in 2014, when 8-year-old Relisha Rudd disappeared after going home with one of the janitors, it became clear the sprawling mini-city of despair had to go.

Relisha Rudd’s friends are growing up, but not growing out of homelessness

Shut it down. Of course.

So why aren’t folks at the shelter celebrating?

Confusion, uncertainty and, most importantly, a reluctance to trust that what comes next will be better. All compounded by the kids being asked to stay off the playground while the heavy machines go to work demolishing buildings and displacing them with wealthier Washingtonians.

“We were told to stay inside, that the kids should stay inside,” said Dalanda Gorman, 27, sitting in the shade of the shelter’s playground (That’s Reservation 13, Parcel F1, according to developers). “You can’t keep all these kids inside. Inside we have mold on the walls, and the other day my son had a mouse crawling on his head when he was asleep.”

About 230 families are still living in the shelter, now surrounded by construction fencing. They’ve all endured a lot of uncertainty and chaos.

“I slept in hallways, bus stations. And when I got here on January 30th?, I finally felt safe,” said Deshanae Pitt, who is 19 and was shielding her 4-day-old baby from construction dust and the rocks other children were throwing on the playground. “Now it’s starting all over again. Where do I go now?”

Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) vowed to shut the shelter down and replace it with smaller facilities scattered throughout the city. Three smaller shelters under construction in Wards 4, 7 and 8 will house 130 families, said D.C. Department of Human Services Director Laura Zeilinger. But they won’t be ready until October.

Zeilinger said the plan is to have all the families out of D.C. General before the winter. The problem, of course, is that kids will be back in school in August. And that means they’ll have to switch to another school weeks into the academic year or endure a long commute.

600 kids in a homeless shelter, blocks from the Capitol

The city has hotel rooms lined up — it paid $28 million to house 900 families in hotels last year — in case the demolition and opening of new spaces don’t line up.

“Our goal is that they do not go from temporary to temporary. We want them to attain housing solutions, not another transfer,” Zeilinger said. “This has been an important opportunity to look at what is the exit plan for every single family.”

But permanent housing for every family is difficult to attain, because the D.C. rental market is so expensive.

Natasha Waddell, 43, who made it out of the shelter, was back at the D.C. General playground this week, watching a friend’s kids and wondering how long it will be until she’s homeless again.

“I know I’m not going to make it,” Waddell said. “Look at the numbers.”

She’s one of the cafeteria ladies at nearby Eastern High School. We all remember them, right? And to supplement that income, she works at Nationals Park. Doesn’t get more Americana than that, does it?

When she moved out of the shelter, she got housing subsidies to make her rent just $216 a month. And she made that work, even socking away some money. Because in June, the rent jumps to $464, as part of the rising rent scale to help someone ease into permanent housing. And she can manage that, with her savings.

But by November, her rent for the small apartment — in an old building that’s a sizable commute from her job — will jump to $1,341 a month. And as far as she knows, lunch ladies aren’t getting raises that could cover that.

By then the shelter will be closed, and she worries she’ll have no place to go.

Pitt, the teen with the newborn, shares the same fears.

“I’m not even worried about me right now,” said Pitt, who is a survivor of abuse in her own home and multiple foster homes. “I just want to promise that my baby has a better chance than I did.”

Twitter: @petulad

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