“Doing it For the Kids,” Weathering a Family Shelter

Photos By Sabrina Caserta and Jasmin Picariello

Take the District’s blue line past GWU- Foggy Bottom, past Federal Circle and get off at the Stadium Armory Metro Station. As soon as you emerge from underground, you’ll see a very different picture than the one the city’s tourist board boasts. Replace monuments with dilapidated bricks, museums with dirty glass and diplomats with the city’s most impoverished and vulnerable residents- the homeless.

You’ll be greeted by DC General- a former hospital turned 288-unit emergency Homeless Shelter circa 2001. The campus’ prison, detox center and rehab facility surround the shelter’s stained and worn bricks. A stark contrast to the new, bright playground which rests in the center of it all, serving as a reminder to the rest of the world that children do live here- contrary to what you would initially think.

Littered outside the shelter are residents, passers-by and junkies. You might find LeDawn Garris with her braids tucked behind her ears, smoking a Newport.

The 39-year old has been a District native her entire life, but has been a resident of DC General for a year, with little hope of leaving. Instead, she shares one small room with her three teenagers. Four mattresses, with one on the floor.

“They say this is temporary, but they lie. I wanna go somewhere affordable and safe,” Garris said. “I can’t wait to leave DC General. I ain’t never coming back. Never. I rather sleep on the streets. If I didn’t have my kids, I could get by, but I don’t want my daughters on the streets. They can’t take it like I can.”

LeDawn Garris, 39, outside DC General

A report released in 2014 revealed that more than 25 percent of all homeless people in the nation’s capital are children, and half are people in families. Since 2010, family homelessness in the District has risen 50 percent.

Nationally, homeless families comprise nearly 34 percent of the total U.S. homeless population. The reasons why families experience homelessness range from lack of affordable housing to domestic violence, mental disabilities, fractured social supports, unfinished education and lack of employment opportunities.

Many families, even if they could work, don’t earn adequate wages. 20 percent of all U.S. jobs wouldn’t keep a family of four out of poverty. The National Center On Family Homelessness projects that some 5.8 million units are needed nationally to fill the gap in affordable housing for low-income households. The growing divide leaves the homeless with few options.

“Ain’t no affordable housing in D.C., except Southeast. And you can’t live there unless you a survivor. You can’t be scared, cause it’s hard,” Garris said. “And now they say, ‘Ms. Garris you ain’t got no money, you here for the rest of your life. Be prepared. My daughters don’t understand, they say, ‘Ma, how can someone let us be homeless like that?’”

In a city that some of the most powerful call home, on any given night nearly 8,000 are without just that- a home. Many take comfort in groups, gathering at metro stations, airport lobbies, and for some, homeless shelters.

DC General kids playing on the grounds recent $450,000 addition.

Even the ones with mice, cold water and little heat- like DC General- can be better than the streets. The shelter spends $156 a day per unit on case management, operations, food, security and facility costs according to the Department of Human Services (DHS) Fiscal Year 2015 budget report.

“We’ve got mice, we just had scabies and I don’t even know what that is,” Garris said. “This facility is too big, they do what they can, but stuff slips through the cracks.”

DC General garnered national attention nearly a year ago after the disappearance of now 9-year-old Relisha Rudd, a former resident. The only suspect is 51-year-old Khalil Tatum, a janitor at the shelter who committed suicide after allegedly killing his wife, just weeks after Rudd’s mysterious disappearance.

The trail stopped when Tatum’s dead body was found in Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, a northeast Washington park. Each passing month offered no more clarity on where the girl who offered a general exuberance for life, might be.

Her disappearance haunts the city to this day, especially Garris, whose 15-year-old daughter was raped when she was just six years old in a Maryland area they were living at the time.

It’s projected that 83 percent of homeless children have had been exposed to at least one serious violent event by age 12, adding to the trauma and affecting both their physical and mental faculties.

DC General campus grounds.

“That little girl should’ve never happened. There ain’t no reason she should be missing. That’s a life, a child. Someone needs to be watching them,” said Garris. “I think it [DC General] should be shut down. I think it should at least be a smaller setting- a smaller setting would be a better setting.”

With its dysfunction, there were talks of closing down DC General and selling the property. In late 2014, city officials discussed the idea of converting five or six smaller buildings into 40-50 unit family shelters dispersed throughout the metro area.

“We are supportive of replacing DC General with smaller shelters throughout the community,” said Kate Coventry, Policy Analyst at D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. “But, you can’t close it without having those other facilities in place. It’s not going to be quick, but we need to start making progress.”

Funding for the several smaller shelters could potentially come from the operating budget for DC General, which in fiscal year 2014 was over $14 million.

“There is an open solicitation for smaller, more community based locations. We anticipate DC General to close in the next year and a half, but the Bowser Administration wants to close most responsibly,” said Dora Taylor, DHS Public Information Officer.

According to Taylor, all 254 families currently living in DC General should be placed in the next 18 months, though they still anticipate the need for emergency shelters.

18 months will leave the District’s homeless with another Washington winter to survive. The city is responsible for providing the homeless shelter during times of hypothermia and hyperthermia. The District’s annual Winter Plan went into effect on November 1 and will stay in place until March 31 for this season. It provides for emergency shelter whenever the temperature falls below 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

The city was formerly housing the homeless in recreation centers chock full of cots. However, as a result of the successful Dignity for Homeless Families Amendment Act of 2014, homeless families must be afforded a place with “four non-portable walls, a ceiling, and a floor that meet at the edges so as to be continuous and uninterrupted,” a “door that locks from within as its main point of access,” sufficient insulation, lighting the occupants can turn on and off and access to hot shower facilities. This bill passed by the Council last November amends the definition in the Homeless Services Reform Act of 2005.

With the influx of families who sought shelter for the colder months of this year, the city was forced to rent out hotel and motel rooms as shelter.

Mayor Muriel Bowser plans to introduce a proposal to solve the District’s family homelessness by 2018. With the help of the Interagency Council on Homelessness (ICH), they have developed a ‘comprehensive strategic plan’ to guide the rest of the city in remedying the homelessness crisis.

“The plan is to prevent homelessness whenever possible, keep it brief and make sure it’s not repeated,” Coventry of D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute said. “There’s no end to homelessness, the key is to improve our response to it.”

The plan is scheduled to be released on March 13th. There will be a public comment meeting, as well as a meeting with consumers at DC General, where comments are expected back by March 20th.

“It’s an ambitious, but achievable goal and we believe it’s one our community shares and must all reach. As the District continues to grow and thrive, we must utilize every possible tool to ensure that no resident, especially our vulnerable children, are left behind,” Mayor Bowser said.

The ongoing Rudd case highlighted flaws in the system. The District came under fire for a myriad of disturbing facts about the case; the 8-year-old had been missing for over 2-weeks before it was officially reported, even though she had a mounting number of school absences. Also, DC General staff noticed the inappropriate relationship between Tatum and Rudd, but failed to report it. Similarly, social workers were aware that there was suspected abuse and family dysfunction, but did not intervene.

“We always knew we were working with a very high-risk population, I mean kids who are experiencing housing instability are prone to any number of threats and tragedies, but at the end of the day, I mean we all have a responsibility to do more to protect them,” said Kelli Beyer, the Communications and Outreach Manager for Homeless Children’s Playtime Project (HCPP). “In the case of Relisha I think there’s a lot of agencies who probably are wishing at this point that they had done something more.”

DC General residents during Homeless Children's Playtime Project programming.

HCPP serves several shelters throughout the District, including DC General. They operate twice a week, providing a variety of play and educational opportunities for homeless children.

As a result of Rudd’s disappearance, 26 recommendations were drafted and have been, or are undergoing the process of being implemented at DC General. Some of these include stricter rules against fraternization between staff and residents, enforcing curfew, as well as improving case management, security measures, facility monitoring and training for shelter staff.

“We were impressed with the 26 recommendations from the Relisha Rudd report,” Beyer said. In response to Rudd, HCPP has made the commitment to focus more on attendance and keep track of where their kids are at all times.

Just a couple of months ago, Garris found out there was a male pedophile living with her and another 200-something families in DC General. ‘We always the last ones to know,” Garris said. “We didn’t know ’til they haul him out.”

The man had been living in the shelter with his girlfriend and her children for under three months, it was ‘a difficult case to flag,’ according to Dora Taylor, the Public Information Officer for DHS.

“The family came from Maryland and he had not been registered as a sex offender in D.C. There was lapse in accounting for his registry,” Taylor said, “Technically there’s no law that says they cannot be there, but we are working to clear up some of these procedures.”

Misconduct tends to happen in the stairwells where there aren’t cameras, according to Garris. Despite the ‘no fraternization’ rule imposed by the District, staffers will ‘play picks’ with residents; either pursuing a sexual relationship or paying them special attention, another DC General resident noted.

Homeless youth are exposed at higher rates to pedophilia, human trafficking rings and some even resort to ‘survival sex,’ and exchange of sexual favors for food or shelter according to the National Network for Youth.

Families waiting at the bus stop located on the DC General campus.

“DC General is not a shelter, it’s a prison. I’m telling you, we got prostitution, we got drugs… There’s drugs baby, running through this joint. You just name it,” Garris said. “Anything could break off in here. We got no safety.”

“I’m certain there are security checks, I have no documented cases of weapons smuggled in,” Taylor said. “We do have a problem with drugs outdoors. We are working to get the bus stop moved off campus, that seems to be a magnet for that activity.”

Some female residents walk in and out of the shelter with a knife stuffed in their bra, according to Garris. ‘Wire bra,’ they’ll explain if the metal detector goes off.

“A lot of people have weapons, probably guns too. All they gotta do is put it in their bags, security can’t check our bags. Now I’m really scared,” Garris said. “But I don’t fight. Step and move. I got my kids. You can’t make me mad, being in here is mad enough.”

Garris suffers from a reading disability, but travels to take classes at Literacy Volunteers and Advocates (LVA) in Northeast Washington. The nonprofit coalition combats adult illiteracy by offering a myriad of classes and programming specific for people dealing with learning challenges.

Garris’ dreams consist of becoming a housekeeper and living somewhere safe.

“I cry a lot, I feel bad… Some people treat you indignant, but I’m not stupid. I know when I’m not being treated right… My mom never taught me shit, and now that I learnt it, it’s hard,” Garris said. “Nobody knows when they could become homeless. We ain’t never gonna get this shelter right, if they watching us, who’s watching them?”

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Author: sabrinacaserta

Sabrina Caserta, born and bred in Bronx, New York, is a freelance reporter whose work has appeared in the New York Daily News and Street Sense- a homeless-run street paper located in the District. As a member of Roger Williams University’s class of 2016, Sabrina studied Journalism and Political Science. This fueled her passion for social justice reporting, including issues of homelessness, institutionalized racism, poverty, education and the environment. She also served as the Project Director of the nation-brand initiative, The Re:Imagine Jamaica Project, and as a Resident Assistant for three years. As an avid reader, health enthusiast and travel addict, Sabrina enjoys yoga, cooking and writing in her spare time. She aspires to one day be an investigative journalist and travel the world. Twitter: @sabrinacaserta Email: sabcaserta AT gmail DOT com

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