A homeless child plays at the Quality Inn & Suites.
A homeless child plays at the Quality Inn & Suites. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Tucked between train tracks and freeway-like New York Avenue NE, where vehicles drive fast and sidewalks are dangerously narrow, the Quality Inn & Suites looks like a forgotten slice of D.C. from the outside.

Inside, dozens of homeless families occupy this hotel-turned-shelter.

In the hotel’s parking lot on a Monday evening, a small boy throws a near-spiral with a soft football and stands triumphant. A few of his peers—black boys and girls ages three to seven—dart across the pavement with one another and adult volunteers from the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, a nonprofit group founded in 2003 that provides play nights at the Quality Inn. They’ve been doing it since January and plan to add a Wednesday evening playtime for toddlers.

About 20 kids roam around the hotel’s ballroom. Some build, and then deconstruct, homes out of Lincoln Logs on a musty brown and maroon carpet. Others take turns at the plastic kitchen against a window that looks onto the Budget Motor Inn—also an overflow shelter—across New York Avenue. 

The view also looks out on Douglas Development’s refurbished Hecht Warehouse, where two-bedroom units start at roughly $2,400 a month in rent, a few blocks west. A water tower painted with the word “HECHT” rises above the complex and its organic food market. To the Motor Inn’s left is a small liquor store.

Dance studio-like mirrors on either end of the Quality Inn’s ballroom, which the Playtime Project is allowed to use for activities per an agreement with D.C.’s Department of Human Services, make the room appear bigger than it is. Some kids dress up in costumes that the nonprofit brought in tow. Soon enough, a mini-Spider Man, a couple of Supermen, and a blue-robed princess are out.

“You want to be a princess?” the tiny Spider Man shrieks to his acquaintance. Another girl with blue beads in her hair plays cashier at a table nearby with a female volunteer, pushing buttons. “How much is that going to cost me?” the volunteer asks. “Twenty dollars!” the girl answers, to her shock.

The Quality Inn is one of several hotels in D.C. and Maryland that serve as emergency shelters for the District’s homeless families because the main one, the former D.C. General Hospital, is usually at capacity with about 250 families. 

City data compiled on one night last week showed more than 800 families in the shelter system, over half of whom were living in hotels. In total, there were about 2,400 adults and children in emergency shelter. The hotels alone cost District taxpayers nearly $60,000 a night, down from almost $80,000 late last year, according to city officials.

Jetta Butler has been staying at the Quality Inn since April 2016 with her 1-year-old daughter and boyfriend. She says they became homeless after finding out that she was pregnant only two months before her daughter’s birth and after losing her job. While Mondays at the Playtime Project’s Quality Inn program are designed for 3- to 7-year-olds, she brings her baby because “it gives her something to do” outside of their cramped hotel room, in a neighborhood where parks are scarce. She adds that her daughter already knows about 10 basic words.

“We gotta have some kind of social activity,” Butler says as her daughter rattles a tambourine. “I like this because I can go upstairs. I trust [them] with her.” She says she’s looking for a new job.

For Jamila Larson, the executive director and co-founder of the Playtime Project, the logistical and bureaucratic hoops the group has had to clear to set up at the Quality Inn were well worth the effort. She says volunteers haul the toys and playsets from the hotel’s second floor and pack them up when the night is through. 

“It definitely takes some juggling, but the first night it was extraordinary how many kids came down,” Larson says. The Playtime Project has about 300 volunteers in its network, dedicated space at D.C. General, and some programming at a few other shelter sites.

“Families need to have their other needs met,” Larson explains. “They can become so isolated.”

Around 8 p.m. Monday, the dozen or so volunteers, mostly women, gather the toys and books in the ballroom. Moms and a few older siblings come to pick up the kids, who say goodbye and leave with healthy snacks in hand.

“I made it!” a young girl tells her mom, pointing at the craft bracelet on her wrist.

“Just because we’re homeless, that doesn’t mean we don’t matter,” Butler says. 

“We didn’t choose to be homeless. I look at this as an obstacle,” she continues. “We want to get out soon. This is not what we want for our child, but at least it’s a roof over your head and food. …At least we’re not under a bridge.”