The playroom in the homeless shelter at the old D.C. General hospital

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Members of the D.C. Council talked to government officials and homeless advocates today to try to better understand how the expansive homeless shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital operates and what institutionalized protocols may have created an environment where the disappearance of 8 year-old Relisha Rudd could go largely unnoticed.

Ward 1 Councilman Jim Graham, head of the Committee on Human Services, held the oversight hearing today on the procedures at the homeless shelter and called on a number of witnesses to testify, including David Berns, head of D.C.’s Department of Human Services, and Sue Marshall, the executive director of Community Partnership, the organization the city contracts to operate the homeless shelter.

The shelter has come under scrutiny this week because Relisha was staying there with her family while Kahlil Tatum, the man who is suspected of kidnapping her, worked as a janitor there. In the wake of the search for Relisha, residents say that employees, particularly Tatum, often fraternized with residents—-something that officials say is explicitly against the rules. Still, councilmembers and witnesses were not allowed to refer to the case in the hearing today, councilmembers said.

Instead the councilmembers—-Graham, Tommy Wells, and Mary Cheh were present—-all agreed that something needed to be done about the shelter, which currently houses more than 500 children. With adults and staff members, the total number of people going in and out of the shelter is more than 1,000 people. The hospital, which shuttered in 2001, was transformed into a homeless shelter in 2007 and was initially intended to temporarily serve people in extreme weather. It’s since become a permanent shelter because the city allows families to stay after the weather warms, with families like Rudd’s remaining there for 18 months or more. Experts spoke to the psychological trauma children can experience when living in such a public and unstable facility like the massive shelter.

“We’ve got to do something about this shelter,” Graham said. “It’s a question about acting.”

Berns said there would be discussion of replacing the shelter as the mayor assembles his next budget, but wouldn’t elaborate. He defended the staff at the shelter, but said the facility at D.C. General is far too large and antiquated to be effective. According to Marshall said, the city currently gives Community Partnership $13 million a year to operate the shelter.

Witnesses said D.C. General imposes a curfew each night (9 p.m. on weeknights, 11 on weekends), but that kids are often not present because they are at a grandparent’s residence or a sleepover, and officials don’t prohibit this because they want the children to have as normal an experience as possible.  Although children are living at the shelter, they are still in the custody and care of their parents, officials said.

Officials also said that no person can be hired at the shelter if they have an existing or pre-existing relationship with any of the residents. Marshall said four Community Partnership employees have been fired for fraternizing with residents.

People with criminal pasts are allowed to work at shelters, provided years have passed since their conviction and their crime has no relation to the job they will be performing. For instance, someone convicted of child abuse 10 years ago would not be allowed to be in direct contact with children.

Graham called for more communication with the public and residents of D.C. General, who are shaken by Relisha’s disappearance, homeless advocates testified. Law enforcement officials now say that Tatum had contact with other girls at the shelter, though the nature of those interactions is still not clear.

“People are feeling very insecure about what they can expect from D.C. General,” Graham said.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery