The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion When a shelter fails homeless people this badly, destroy it

The exterior of the homeless shelter in 2014.
The exterior of the homeless shelter in 2014. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
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THE HAIR is different. The bows and braids of a little girl have been replaced with the more sophisticated cut of an adolescent. But the eyes that stare back from the age-processed image of what Relisha Rudd would look like today are the same. Brown and haunting.

It has been more than four years since the 8-year-old went missing. The girl lived with her family at the District’s homeless shelter at the old D.C. General Hospital. The release this month of a photo of her newly imagined face serves as a poignant — and much needed — reminder of just how intolerable conditions are at the shelter. It underscores why Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) is right not to give in to pressure to delay her plans for closing and demolishing the notorious facility.

“I know some people think that we’re moving too quickly,” the mayor said in her 2018 State of the District speech , “. . . but let me say this and let me be clear, when it comes to closing D.C. General, we cannot move fast enough.” The administration plans to close the shelter by October and quickly raze it, along with other buildings on the site of the former public hospital. But some homeless advocates have raised concerns that some of the six smaller neighborhood shelters being built won’t be ready, and they have pushed to delay the closing of D.C. General.

Advocates are right to be concerned about the families still housed there — 151 as of July 13 , which is down from the nearly 300 that once lived there. But warehousing people in a facility that was always too old and too big and is now literally falling down — “an embarrassment to our city,” Ms. Bowser rightfully said — doesn’t serve their interests. Administration officials said their plans are to relocate the families to stable housing, not another shelter, with the backup option of temporary placement in hotels or motels.

There is no question that the city under this administration (with much credit to human services head Laura Zeilinger) has made strides in addressing family homelessness. It introduced reforms that put the emphasis on preventing homelessness and helping people exit to permanent housing more quickly. The result, according to the annual Point-in-Time count of the homeless, has been a 40 percent decrease in the number of homeless families over two years. Of course, more must be done, and the D.C. Council is right to insist that the administration provide regular reports on the relocation of families and the status of the new shelters.

Much is still unknown about Relisha, who was last seen March 1, 2014 , with a D.C. General janitor who later killed himself. Where is she? Is she alive or, as has been sadly presumed, dead? Police released the new image of her in the hope of getting some answers. Whether or not they succeed, one thing already known: No child should have to live in a place as dreadful as D.C. General.

Read more:

Amy Moore: The D.C. General demolition plan is stunning in its callousness

The Post’s View: Finally, a path appears toward closing D.C. General

Deana Howard: I just moved out of D.C. General. Here’s how shelters can change lives.

The Post’s View: The mayor’s plan to replace D.C. General to house the homeless is on the right track