P.H., a resident of the shelter at D.C. General, had raised enough complaints and gotten nowhere. So yesterday morning she decided to e-mail Mayor Adrian Fenty about the living conditions there. The letter spanned six long, single-spaced paragraphs. She spared no detail.
“I wanted my voice to be heard,” P.H. tells City Desk. “I could not wait to get up, get to the library at 9:30 a.m. to press that send button. It felt like a relief….I was sitting outside the library before it opened.”
P.H., 26, wrote that she and her three daughters moved into D.C. General on Jan. 27. They were placed in a cafeteria with 17 other families where they slept on air mattresses that wouldn’t properly inflate. “At night my daughters and I had to sleep very close to each other to stay warm, because the room was so frigid,” P.H. wrote.
P.H. says the cafeteria would get so cold at night, she’d sometimes go outside and warm her family in their car. They’d bundle up, crank the heat for an hour or two, then go back to their wilting air mattresses. In the car, there was a sense of peace. Not so, the cafeteria.
Inside the cafeteria-turned-barracks, P.H. says the smell was terrible. “It was like a stench that I had never smelled in my life,” P.H. says. Staff did not provided adequate trash cans or trash pickup, she says. Sometimes, dirty diapers were left around the room.
In a room adjacent to the cafeteria, people smoked weed, according to P.H. and another resident, Patrice Jackson. In the morning, men, women, and children all had to get dressed in front of each other. Some tried to put up a trash bag over the cafeteria door’s window as a makeshift curtain. But D.C. General’s staff tore it down. “One of the monitors said we didn’t deserve any privacy,” Jackson, 25, says. “So they kept pulling down the plastic.”
Like the Richbows, P.H. says that one of her daughters got sick from the shelter’s food and had to be taken to the hospital. She wrote Fenty: “I had to rush my daughter to the hospital in the middle of the night, because she had gotten food poisoning from the dinner that had been served.”
So what did the D.C. General staff actually do? P.H. writes that they had sex with the residents:
“A few of the staff members exchange sex for favors with the female homeless residents. A resident, whom I had become very close with, was caught by a staff member, having sexual intercourse with another male staff member in the middle of the night, in the cafeteria at the shelter facility.”
P.H. says she herself was propositioned by a staff member. “One of the staff members asked me if I wanted to go out,” she says. The staffer said: “If you like, you can spend the weekend at my apartment.”
Jackson says she was propositioned many times by shelter staff but rebuffed the offers. “It was staff that was trying. ‘Come on, let’s go to my house,'” Jackson recalls them saying. “They’ll gesture you to come to the back of the closet with them. I’m like, ‘No I don’t do stuff like that.'”
Sometimes, the staff tried to entice Jackson with “special favors,” like offering an extra blanket.
Jackson says that when she’d ask for basic things like an extra blanket or juice for her child, the male staff would counter with a pick-up line: “What you going to give me?”
P.H. wrote that she and her family had serious needs that were ignored by D.C. General staff:
“My eldest daughter and I have been diagnosed with a mental illness, and the living arrangements, and the treatment given by the staff at D.C. General, makes our lives extremely stressful, and uncomfortable. My daughters and I spent numerous years in an abusive household, both physically, and sexually. My family, and I have numerous everyday life challenges, and we try to maintain a positive attitude….Living at the Families Forward Shelter reminds us of the abusive home that we once lived in with my husband.”
Calls to Families Forward, the group in charge of the shelter, have not been returned. P.H. and Jackson are still living at D.C. General.
Today, Fenty wrote P.H. back:
“Thank you for writing me. I appreciate your comments and care about your concerns. This acknowledgement is in reference to your recent correspondence. Please allow 5-10 business days for a response.
Your request has been forwarded to Mr. Jim Tufa, my point-of-contact at the Department of Human Services. Please feel free to contact that office at (202) 671-4200 or mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org regarding the status of your request. Your correspondence has been assigned the following EOM tracking number: 883892.
In the interim, please be sure to visit the DC government web site at www.dc.gov for all current updates and lists of provided services in the District of Columbia. For immediate assistance, I urge you to contact my City-wide Call Center by dialing 311, or 202-727-1000 if you live outside of the District of Columbia.
For future comments and concerns, please email me at email@example.com.
Adrian M. Fenty, Mayor”
File photo by Darrow Montgomery