Willie Richbow Jr., 19, moved into D.C. General with his mother and his two sisters on Sept. 30. They could have been an easy case, a family that didn’t need to log months in an activity room.

His family was not chronically homeless or saddled with drug and mental health issues. Richbow and his kin had become homeless after their Petworth house went into foreclosure; they had lived in that home since 1999 but lost it after his mother lost her job and his father couldn’t afford to keep up with the mortgage. His father eventually left the family.

In July, the Richbows put their belongings in storage and stayed in an Arlington hotel and then an extended-stay hotel in Largo before coming to D.C. General. Even then, Willie says his mother came to the shelter with a good lead on a four-bedroom apartment in Greenbelt. “We already had somewhere to go,” he says.

His mother, Karen, says they even had the security deposit and first months rent covered. A woman at their church volunteered to pay it.

All they needed was a case worker to sign off on a Section 8 housing voucher. But Willie and his mother say it took about a month before his family got the attention of a case worker at D.C. General. Even then, the case worker told them they couldn’t qualify for a housing voucher until February. “That kind of took my mother down,” Willie says.

“I just went into a state of depression,” says Karen. “I was trying to help myself and my children to get us housing. At the same time, this is what the case workers are there for—-to assist you.” The family should have jumped in front of the line for a voucher. Karen’s 17-year-old daughter had psoriasis that required her to take medication as well as two baths per day. There were only showers at D.C. General.

Instead, the Richbow family had to deal with life inside D.C. General. This meant guarding against mice, water damaged walls, bad radiators, fights, drug use, mystery meat, and a scary stomach virus.

During that first month, the Richbows moved two times within D.C. General before receiving a suitable private room. When Karen opened the dresser drawers, she found roaches. She immediately gave the bedroom a good cleaning. She says she swept and mopped their small private space every night.

Behind the radiator, Karen says she found mice droppings. “It was so many mice droppings back there, you could fill up a CVS bag,” she says. She notified D.C. General’s staff. But no one ever came by to clear out the mice feces.

The food got even less staff attention. The spaghetti seemed to give everyone digestive problems. As did the mystery meat; Karen says not even the cafeteria workers could ID it.

During Christmas, Karen’s 5-year-old daughter came down with a stomach virus. It took her several days to get better. But not before the virus spread to other family members. When her 5-year-old came down with the virus again, Karen took her to Children’s Hospital. Her daughter was admitted and stayed over night hooked up to an IV.

Even after her hospital stay, Karen’s daughter continued to have bad stomach cramps. “She would have bowel movements that smelled like dead people,” Karen says. “All of us. The smell would make me sick. When you pass gas, and it makes you sick, that’s really bad. I don’t even know how dead people smell after they decay, but I guess that’s how they would smell.”

Karen and Willie had spent nearly every day looking for an apartment. Willie says he made at least 40 to 50 calls. Some of their efforts produced promising leads. Their case manager would then instruct them to fill out forms with the potential apartment’s contact information. “I would find places and turn those sheets into her and nothing,” Karen explains. “It was basically a dead end.”

The case manager never seemed to follow up on any of Karen’s leads. When she complained, her case manager said the forms were “just to show you are out looking.” Where those forms ended up, Karen doesn’t know.

“I began to ask questions to other residents,” Karen says. “They were going through the same thing with the other case workers. We couldn’t understand what is the point of us going out every day to find apartments that are available and then you take this information back to your case worker and they do nothing…It was basically just for show.”

Jamila Larson, executive director and co-founder of the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, organized activities for kids at D.C. General. Willie had reached out to her for help. “Any time a 19 year old is looking you in the eye saying ‘I just want to go to college, I just want a job, can you help me’ is heartbreaking,” Larson says. “It’s a shame he hadn’t gotten access to those resources.”

Larson regularly heard similar frustrations from other families.  “I’ve been really appalled by the stories that I’ve heard from the families about the lack of quality case management,” she says. ” That’s one of the reasons for the huge bottleneck. It’s not unusual for families to say it’s taken a month before they had their first meeting with their case manager. We know families who have been in there for eight months. It’s so unnecessary for families to be sitting there without any forward movement.”

Pam Lieber, program director for Turning Point, a transitional housing program for young mothers run by the Salvation Army, says she tried to set up an informational session at D.C. General. She said it took multiple phone calls and countless hours just to get the notice of D.C. General’s staff. When they finally held a session, few mothers actually showed up. Leiber got the impression that D.C. General had done little to promote the session.

Lieber says her program had as many as eight openings. She thinks not one of those slots ended up going to a D.C. General family. She adds that the case workers might be overwhelmed. But in the past, they have balked at filling out Turning Point’s detailed paper work.

“It shouldn’t be so hard to set up time to talk to your residents about getting them help,” Lieber says.  “Why are we having to jump through the hoops to go through the door? We don’t want anything from you, we are bringing things to you.”

Instead, D.C. General just continued to fill up with more families. By the beginning of March, the population climbed to 200 families. A sense of lawlessness had already taken root. Sometimes, Karen and Willie say they smelled cigarette smoke in the facility. Sometimes, they smelled weed or incense. “A lot of people had bottles up in their room,” Willie says. ” People smoked cigarettes through the vents in their rooms.” Karen says she found baggies of weed outside the building.

Police were more attentive than case workers. Fights were constant. In the fourth floor activity room, a woman pulled out a blade, Willie says.

“A lot of couples had domestic violence going on in their rooms,” Karen adds. Police had to respond to the shelter three or four times a week, sometimes two or three times a day. “They were there regularly,” Willie says.

In February, the snowstorm meant residents had to fend for themselves. “The case workers weren’t in the building during the two-three weeks,” Willie says.

Finally, the Richbows’ luck began to change after the storm. Karen ran into a Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless lawyer who had been working with a client at D.C. General. Through the legal clinic, she was able to find an apartment off Benning Road SE. The Richbow family moved out of D.C. General this past weekend. “It’s nice,” Willie says. “The apartment is furnished. Everything is new.”

The legal clinic got the Richbows a Section 8 voucher, something they never got from their case worker.

Willie graduated from Roosevelt High School in 2008 with a decent grade point average. He hopes to attend college. He may have finally found a job.  He made a connection through the security company at the shelter. “I’m supposed to go to an interview on Wednesday,” Willie says. “We’ll see how that goes.”

*photo courtesy of DC Watch.