WASHINGTON - A moment of silence and prayer for Relisha Rudd opened a D.C. Council committee hearing Friday that looked into the problems at the massive homeless shelter near R.F.K. Stadium where the missing girl's family lives, and where the man accused of taking her worked until last week.
"There are hundreds of District children at D.C. General and at shelters throughout the region who are just as vulnerable as Relisha," says Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children's Law Center.
Despite complaints about rats, bedbugs and only intermittent hot water, Department of Human Services Director David Berns says the shelter operator does the best it can to serve the approximately 1,000 people currently living at D.C. General.
The shelter is housed inside the former city hospital, which closed more than a decade ago.
"This is a very well-run facility, managed by long-term and trusted partners. They do this in a building that is outdated, that is antiquated, that was not designed for this purpose" says Berns.
While there are rules about curfews and interactions with staff, children living at the shelter are still in their parents' custody, which means shelter staff cannot immediately raise an alarm just because a child living in the shelter does not stay there on a particular night.
"A child may stay with a grandparent, which is completely acceptable under our rules. The kids are not in our care and custody. They are in the care and custody of their parents… there can be a number of different reasons, we try to make this as normal [as possible]," Berns says.
Children in homeless shelters have often already experienced traumatic lives, and the trauma can be compounded when a family goes to a shelter.
"This is true of even the best maintained shelters. In the case of D.C. General however, the frequent rodent and pest infestations, intermittent hot water, and unsafe housing conditions can trigger additional medical problems, anxiety and fear," Sandalow says.
"We've been failing these children, leaving them susceptible to exploitation and ongoing danger, and we're here today because we don't want to see another child in Relisha's shoes," she adds.
The Homeless Children's Playtime Project says at least some of the shelter's residents were not even aware that staff members were barred from non-work relationships with residents of any age, including flirting.
The Community Partnership, the contractor that runs the shelter, says the "fraternization policy" was included in a packet given to every employee when they were hired. It bars any relationship with residents of the shelter while the residents are living at D.C. General and for two years after they leave.
Partnership executive director Sue Marshall says she has not gotten any formal complaints about "flirtatious inappropriate behaviors" between staff and residents recently. But she adds that four employees have been fired for violating the fraternization policy since the contractor took over operations in 2010.
"We are looking at all of the procedures, listening to all of the feedback, and are doing absolutely everything we can to fill in gaps where they are identified," Marshall says.
She says that includes potentially expanding background checks to cover all employees, rather than just those whose job descriptions include interactions with residents.
Marshall acknowledges that D.C. General has not posted any information about Relisha, or any information addressing residents' concerns about her disappearance or the state of the building.
A shelter in crisis
Berns says he expects a plan to replace the shelter will be included in Mayor Vincent Gray's new budget, but he cannot yet share the details.
"Every few years, in the midst of a crisis, we examine our shelter system, acknowledge the problems, and commit to doing better. I hope we mean it this time," says Patricia Fugere, executive director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.
"We need to invest in housing. We need to ensure that families, regardless of where they are on the income scale, regardless of the struggles that they experience, we need to ensure that our community is a community where everyone has a safe and decent place to stay. And if we fall short of that, then shame on us," she says.
City of homeless
The number of homeless families in D.C. surged this winter. The city had planned to help 509 homeless families during the five months when freezing temperatures are likely. But more than 700 asked for help between November and January. Berns says none of those families are still in makeshift shelters at recreation centers. But the District is still paying for more than 375 families to stay at hotels, including about 40 who are at hotels in Maryland.
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