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For over a decade, staff members and volunteers of the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project have been silent witnesses to the turbulent history of D.C. General, the city’s largest family homeless shelter. The non-profit group hosts evening programs for toddlers and pre-teens alike four times a week, and has transformed the lobby level of the shelter with toys, instruments, books, and murals.
That era ends on Thursday, the night of Playtime’s final program at D.C. General, as the Department of Human Services continues to move families out of the shelter in preparation for demolition. Its programs will continue, in part, at the motel shelters on New York Avenue NE, though space and other issues threaten the breadth of Playtime’s program offerings.
In a wide-ranging conversation with City Paper days before Playtime’s last night at the shelter, its director and co-founder, Jamila Larson, recalls watching the conditions unfold that outlets have reported for years. She was there during the months of severe overcrowding that saw mothers sleep with newborns on de facto gurneys; for the warnings that some rooms contained asbestos; for the aftermath of reports that shelter workers were propositioning mothers for sex in exchange for blankets.
In Playtime’s early days, D.C. General had a different operator—the notorious group Families Forward, which ran the shelter until then-Mayor Adrian Fenty fired it for allegations of mismanagement. “[Families Forward] didn’t care to meet us,” Larson says. “And here we were, these random people with direct access to these children.”
Larson has no shortage of heartbreaking stories. She still remembers watching a young girl who, driven crazy by the unrelenting noise inside the D.C. General cafeteria where Playtime once operated, threw her hands over her ears and screamed, “It’s too loud!” Years ago, shelter operators wouldn’t let Playtime deliver extra coloring books and crayons.
More recently, Playtime lost two of its volunteers when a group reportedly affiliated with the Islamic State killed Jay Austin and Lauren Geoghegan as they cycled across Tajikistan. Austin, Larson says, was Playtime’s stand-in carpenter, and helped renovate the teen center. He also made the pins community members wore when 8-year-old D.C. General resident Relisha Rudd went missing in 2014. “He was just sobbing and sobbing,” she says.
Until their deaths, Rudd’s disappearance was “by far, the most traumatic thing any of them had gone through” at Playtime. “But the [volunteers] have been through a lot over the years,” she says.
After Thursday’s program at D.C. General, the group will take about a month off from events while it moves all of its toys out of the shelter and prepares to host new programs next month in some of the city’s motel shelters. Playtime will continue to host four nights of events at the Holiday Inn Express on New York Avenue NE, and two nights at the Days Inn for 3- to 7-year-old children each week. Its space there isn’t exactly ideal: a waiting room between a case management room and the dining area.
That’s on top of two existing nights of programming at the New York Avenue NE Quality Inn, though Playtime is negotiating for additional space; it hopes to add two nights of pre-teen programming to the motel to compensate for its loss at D.C. General. But Larson says that Axar Management, the company that operates that Quality Inn, asked Playtime to pay $1,000 per week (roughly $50,000 a year) to reserve its ballroom.
In a letter Playtime sent to Axar, Larson wrote that the decision to charge the group for the space “will result in harm to children who will be shut out of the chance to receive the critical services we provide … we cannot serve the 8-12-year-old age group without having these two additional nights in the Ballroom, and as a result, we are turning them away,” the letter continues. (Larson says Axar has not yet responded to Playtime’s letter, and the company did not answer City Paper’s calls.)
“We’re definitely having a hard time figuring out how we’re going to operate in the new homelessness landscape. But we’re committed to being as creative as we can,” Larson says. “We can’t stop providing services just because it’s not as convenient for us.”