As of earlier this month, there were 570 homeless children staying with their families at the shelter in the former D.C. General Hospital.
As of earlier this month, there were 570 homeless children staying with their families at the shelter in the former D.C. General Hospital.

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The Washington Post has a powerful story out today with many new details on the disappearance of eight-year-old Relisha Rudd, who’s believed to have been kidnapped by a janitor at the D.C. General shelter, where she and her mother were staying. There were clearly plenty of failures here: on the part of the girl’s mother, who lied about Relisha’s whereabouts as her school absences piled up and even after she vanished; of workers at D.C. General, who didn’t notice that her suspected captor was giving her gifts and spending lots of time with her; of city social workers, who noted abuse and deplorable conditions back when Relisha was just an infant but allowed her to remain at home.

But the story also highlights just how entrenched life has become for many families at D.C. General, which was initially intended just as a temporary, seasonal shelter for homeless families. Yet as affordable housing has grown scarce and the city has struggled to find apartments for families at D.C. General to move into, stays at the shelter have grown longer and longer. The city generally places families into shelter only during extreme weather (mostly during the winter), but allows them to remain until they’ve found stable housing. As the number of homeless families in the city has swelled, D.C. General has remained full throughout the year. It began this winter at capacity, forcing the city to shelter families in motels and recreation centers. And with more families now in shelter than the city will likely be able to move into other housing by next winter, it’s probable that we’ll again see the city scrambling to improvise shelter as colder temperatures set in later this year.

Before disappearing, Rudd had lived at D.C. General with her mother for 18 months. That’s longer than the average stay at the shelter, but not out of the ordinary. According to a questionnaire filled out by the Department of Human Services before its D.C. Council oversight hearing last month, the median stay of current families at D.C. General is 98 days, or more than three months. The longest stay by any of those families, DHS reported, is three years. That means Relisha and her mother could have doubled their stay at D.C. General without setting any records.

DHS also stated in the questionnaire that the ratio of families at D.C. General to case managers for those families is 26:1. With that kind of caseload, it’s not hard to see how Relisha’s case manager might have missed the many warning signs about her precarious situation.

Several of the families placed at rec centers whom I spoke with said their hope was to secure a bed at D.C. General, where life is more stable than at the rec centers: Showers are provided, privacy is possible, and the families don’t need to reapply each day for shelter. But D.C. General isn’t without its share of problems. Relisha’s case is certainly not the first time that D.C. General staff have been accused of improper contact with female residents. In 2010, the shelter fired two employees who had allegedly tried to trade favors for sex with residents of the shelter.

Many advocates and city officials feel that the “temporary” shelter at D.C. General ought to be retired and the city’s homeless families moved to a more appropriate facility. But in the absence of another viable option, D.C. General is likely to remain full year-round, and to continue suffering from problems like these.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery