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In July 2013, The Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness received a letter from the D.C. Department of Human Services office responsible for investigating facilities for the homeless. The letter contained the results of the annual inspection of the family shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital, which TCP operates.
The inspectors found eight deficiencies in the long-troubled shelter. Most were what you’d expect in an aging facility: broken toilets, leaking pipes, water damage. Others were more disconcerting: Half the electrical outlets in the common areas were missing required child-protective covers, and a room containing confidential client records was unlocked.
And then there was deficiency No. 7: “Criminal background checks do not include Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) records checks.” Fourteen randomly selected personnel files, the report stated, contained no evidence of the FBI and MPD checks required by the Child and Youth Safety and Health Omnibus Amendment Act of 2004.
Less than eight months later, an 8-year-old resident of D.C. General disappeared, apparently abducted by a shelter janitor with a criminal history that included felony convictions for burglary and breaking and entering.
This Sunday marks the one-year anniversary of the last time that girl, Relisha Rudd, was seen. A month after she disappeared, police found the body of her suspected abductor, Kahlil Tatum. Relisha is feared dead, and the police investigation remains open.
It’s not clear that compliance with the 2004 law would have prevented Relisha’s disappearance, given that the law didn’t classify the janitor’s role as a “safety sensitive position” and didn’t prohibit him from working in close proximity to children. But TCP’s tenure managing D.C. General has seen enough instances of negligence and alleged abuses of power by shelter staff for critics to call for the city to terminate its contract with the organization.
“We’ve lost any confidence in The Community Partnership,” says Rev. Mike Wilker, senior pastor of the Lutheran Church of the Reformation on Capitol Hill. Wilker and other leaders of the Washington Interfaith Network have met with hundreds of D.C. General residents and advocated for better management of the shelter. “It’s our judgment that The Community Partnership is broken, and that the problems at The Community Partnership are so fundamental, we don’t think they can be fixed.”
“It’s basically a failure,” says Naila Dorsey, who lived at D.C. General with her three children for four months last year. “They never worked up to what we needed, as far as families in there that needed assistance.”
Two of the three leading candidates for mayor last year said they would terminate TCP’s contract for management of D.C. General. The third, now-Mayor Muriel Bowser, said at an Oct. 2 debate, “This is a big contractor who has failed to do the job that needs to be done to keep children like Relisha safe.” But she stopped short of calling for TCP to be replaced, saying instead that she’d conduct a “top-down review.” Bowser spokesman Michael Czin says that review is in its early stages.
TCP not only runs D.C. General, but also oversees the District’s full homeless services program, known as the continuum of care, much of which it contracts out to other providers. The nonprofit organization has become nearly synonymous with homeless services in D.C., leading the continuum of care since 1994.
“We’re taking a good look at the contract with TCP,” says Laura Zeilinger, Bowser’s appointee to direct DHS, who’s serving as acting director while she awaits D.C. Council confirmation.“TCP has been a partner to the city for decades to deliver homeless services. At times when the District has abdicated all responsibility on homelessness, they’ve been the homeless services provider.” Zeilinger, who worked as a DHS deputy director from 2008 to 2011, says she has not yet made a decision on the “shelf life” of the TCP contract but is looking at ways to “build in some accountability measures.”
The organization has close ties to the D.C. government. Michele Williams, who manages the city’s efforts to assist homeless families as the Family Services Administrator at DHS, worked at TCP for seven and a half years before joining DHS in February 2014. Mayor Vince Gray’s deputy mayor for health and human services, B.B. Otero, who oversaw that administration’s homeless services, has served on TCP’s board of directors. TCP Executive Director Sue Marshall has donated nearly $5,000 to D.C. political candidates in the past decade, including $1,000 each to mayoral rivals Gray and Adrian Fenty in the 2010 primary. At public hearings, Marshall often sits with D.C. government officials as they deliver testimony. (Marshall and TCP Chief of Policy and Programs Tom Fredericksen did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
“There’s been a really blurry line between the D.C. government and The Community Partnership,” says Patty Mullahy Fugere, executive director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “It’s been hard to tell where the government ended and the Partnership picked up. They haven’t been treated as a normal contractor, and there hasn’t been the kind of oversight and accountability that you’d expect.”
TCP isn’t really a normal contractor. The organization wasn’t supposed to be the direct service provider at D.C. General. That job belonged to a group called Families Forward, until revelations of serious infractions came to light. According to residents, employees at the shelter routinely propositioned female residents for sex, sometimes implying that residents would only receive things like extra blankets and juice for their children if they had sex with a staff member.
In April 2010, the Fenty administration fired Families Forward. TCP, which administered Families Forward’s contract for D.C. General, took over day-to-day management, ostensibly until a new operator could be found. Five years later, TCP is still running the shelter.
“The Partnership never was a shelter provider, ever,” says Fugere. “It had overall management responsibility, and they were left holding this disaster when Families Forward got axed.”
In 2011, the city opened the contract for D.C. General to a competitive bid. TCP was the only respondent. Since then, the city and TCP have extended their contract three times without opening it to bids. In the current fiscal year, TCP has a $71 million contract with the city, of which $13 million is for management of D.C. General.
Recent troubles at D.C. General are disconcertingly reminiscent of the problems under Families Forward. According to a Washington Post investigation last year, residents complained that staff members had sexually assaulted them, photographed them while they showered, and tried to pay them for sex.
Dorsey says the shelter is beset by physical problems, from water leaks to faulty toilets—similar to the issues reported after the 2013 inspection. In the past year, according to Fugere, TCP has made it more difficult for homeless residents’ attorneys to enter the shelter and help them advocate for their rights. On at least one occasion when the Washington Legal Clinic was trying to conduct advocacy training, Fugure says, shelter management scheduled a mandatory meeting for residents at the same time. DHS spokeswoman Dora Taylor says access to the shelter has become more restrictive in the past year due to “heightened security measures implemented for the safety of the residents.”
Dorsey and Wilker also say residents complain of intimidation and threats from staff if they don’t accept placement into rapid rehousing, a program that moves families from shelter into long-term housing. The city has an incentive to speed up those moves, given that D.C. General was already maxed out when the winter began and the city has been forced to put hundreds of families in motel rooms in order to comply with the District law requiring shelter for the homeless during freezing conditions. City officials hoped to maintain or exceed the pace they set last summer, when 64 families per month left shelter for housing; instead, just 43 families per month left from October to December. Families are wary of accepting placements into units they think they won’t be able to afford at the end of the subsidy, which is guaranteed for just four months, or into neighborhoods they consider unsafe or that are far from their children’s schools.
TCP oversees the rapid rehousing program, where there have likewise been complaints about its performance. Some rapid rehousing participants have faced eviction proceedings after TCP failed to pay the subsidy portion of the rent. Anna Purinton, an attorney with Legal Aid, says she’s seen several clients face eviction because TCP didn’t make payments.
“We would see someone who would say, ‘I have rapid rehousing through Catholic Charities or Community of Hope or some organization,’” Purinton says, referring to groups that provide case management for rapid rehousing participants but aren’t responsible for the rent payments. “And we’d have to explain, ‘It’s not really them.’ Then we started realizing it was all TCP.”
Finally, advocates have criticized TCP for lax enforcement of its fraternization policy, because shelter staff members were aware that Tatum was spending time with Relisha but failed to report the violation. TCP recently updated its fraternization policy to stipulate that a staff member with knowledge of a violation of the policy who does not immediately report that violation “will be terminated immediately.” In its response to questions from the Council in anticipation of an upcoming oversight hearing, DHS also states that it has made changes to its procedures to better track whether minor residents are present at night, but emphasizes that “the shelter has no authority to make parenting decisions.” Taylor says, “DHS and shelter providers understand that families residing in shelter are not in the custody of the government.”
“I think we are taking as many steps as we can reasonably take,” says Zeilinger, “while still respecting that people need to be able to live and parent and have some liberties in a way that’s appropriate and safe.”
TCP does have its defenders, or at least sympathizers. Few people claim D.C. General is a well-run, safe home for children. But some city officials have argued that it simply can’t be, even with the best operator, due to structural problems and financial limitations, and that TCP is performing well given the circumstances.
In July, three months after Relisha’s disappearance, David Berns, who had retired the month before as Gray’s DHS director, told the Post, “Within the confines of an inadequate building structure, I think our contractor is doing a good job with the maintenance, in the cleanliness, in the staffing, in the oversight.” Two months later, Berns’ successor Deborah Carroll told the paper, “We have a tremendous amount of confidence in The Community Partnership. It is probably one of the best-run shelters in the country.”
Yvette Alexander, who chairs the Council’s human services committee, thinks the city’s right-to-shelter law denies TCP the flexibility needed to improve conditions. “The way that the laws in the District of Columbia are set up, I think they’re doing an adequate job,” she says. “But I think the challenge is, with our right-to-shelter laws, it puts us in a position that our hands are tied in a lot of cases, in terms of controls.”
Alexander’s predecessor as committee chair, Jim Graham, acknowledges that TCP is “not the solid gold nonprofit of the world.” But he says running D.C. General is “an impossible task with the resources allocated,” and he maintains that TCP is doing a better job than Families Forward did.
Fugere says some people have given TCP a pass because of the large, outdated facility in which it must operate the shelter. “But I’m not so sure that the pass is really deserved,” she says. “Even given the challenges of the physical plant, I think there are a lot of things that could be done that haven’t been done that would make the shelter a more positive experience for families.” Advocates have argued for more extensive training for all shelter staff, including people like janitors, that prepares them to work with residents who have experienced trauma, and for better security and maintenance of the facilities.
In October, Gray released a plan to close D.C. General and replace it with a network of smaller shelters around the city. That won’t happen quickly or easily, but most people who work with D.C. General feel confident that its smaller successors will be easier to manage.
Still, Fugere says another year or more of TCP management should be avoided, since “a year of good management would make a big difference for families.” The prospect of a D.C. General shutdown in the next couple of years could prevent the city from investing in the shelter, which in turn might dissuade other potential operators. Alexander, for one, is reluctant to pour money into a facility that’s slated for clo-sure. “We have to get to the point where we’re going to invest more money in the shelter or invest more money in getting people out of the shelter,” she says. “And I’d rather invest more money in getting people out of the shelter.”
Wilker and other TCP critics are heartened by Bowser’s appointment of new department heads with extensive experience in homeless services, including Zeilinger, who served as executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness prior to joining the Bowser administration. But they say they’ll continue pressing Bowser to replace TCP.
To Wilker, therein lies the one silver lining of the Relisha Rudd tragedy. “It was when Relisha was abducted that spurred us to action,” he says. “Every day we work on this, it’s in memory of Relisha, and because we’re still concerned about the other children that may still be at risk.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery