The District’s homeless shelter is seen Monday in what once was D.C. General hospital. (Bill O'Leary/WASHINGTON POST)

The people who care began e-mailing and calling and Facebooking and tweeting as soon as my description of 600 homeless kids crammed into a D.C. shelter hit The Washington Post on Saturday morning.

“I am appalled and embarrassed for our nation’s capital,” one reader wrote.

“What’s up with Washington? How can this be?” another tweeted.

“That almost made me puke,” went another tweet.

How, hundreds of them demanded to know, can a prosperous city be home to such a huge and hidden tragedy? Then they asked, “How can I help?”

Those are the two toughest questions to answer.

The number of homeless kids in D.C. has been swelling, even as the recession has been lifting, D.C. has been growing and people have been finding work again.

“The recession had a disproportionate hit on families that we were just not prepared for,” said D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6). “The number of families falling over the cliff was just extraordinary, and we didn’t expect it. The city was not prepared, the country was not prepared for the number of families to lose their housing.”

Wells thinks it began with the budget cuts over the last few years that helped our city survive the recession. Tons of small programs, neighborhood collaborative and housing assistance funds were axed. Add to that the shriveling up of cash that went to churches and small nonprofit groups and you have the seeds for the devastation now blossoming before our eyes.

The small charities were the lifelines for the city’s paycheck-to-paycheck families if a burst pipe flooded the house, or a heater broke in the winter. They could float a family through a rough patch.

Now? All of those little gossamer safety nets are gone. Here’s what’s left: the old D.C. General Hospital, our Homelessville, USA, population 976.

“We have created a small town,” said Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). “And meanwhile, this city is now flush with cash.”

Graham, who is the chairman of the city’s Committee on Human Services, is holding a hearing at the shelter on Feb. 28 to investigate the living conditions there, which he worries are “Third World.”

He’s right about that. But getting families out of a dreadful place where they lack privacy, hot water and a place for their kids to play won’t be easy. Low-cost housing in the city is disappearing at an alarming rate. The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute found that median rents soared by as much as 50 percent between 2000 and 2010.

Even so, the city needs to make good on promises to help get the families back on their feet, not with handouts and a depressing mini-city, but real solutions on affordable housing and child care.

The train wreck happening before our eyes needs to stop. Residents can help by insisting that their elected officials treat this like the citywide crisis that it is. We don’t hesitate to call the city about trash pickup or snow removal. Officials need to hear our outrage about their willingness to tolerate 600 children without a home.

“What can I do?” so many readers asked. They offered clothing, diapers, career counseling, low-cost rentals, anything.

“Just wanted you to know that I intend to mobilize supporters from among the members of our Primetime Senior Adults ministry at McLean Bible Church to do something about this horrible situation,” e-mailed one reader, Wayne Fujito.

Thank you, Wayne.

To all those readers who want to help now, what else can you do?

Let’s start with one group that I absolutely love and I can guarantee works directly with the little kids you see at the D.C. General. The Homeless Children’s Playtime Project is a nonprofit group that provides play space, toys, books, school uniforms and unconditional support and love. It does everything from teen tutoring to baby cuddle time.

The group depends on donated supplies and volunteered time. Contact

This is a complex crisis that will take a multifaceted approach to solve. It’s more than an increased budget, a cot or a single counseling program. But we can do it. We have to do it because at least 600 kids are counting on people who care.

And from the response I got, there are many who do.

Follow me on Twitter at @petulad. To read earlier columns, go to