WASHINGTON — Three years after the disappearance of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd shed light on the terrible conditions inside the District’s largest homeless shelter for families, the city on Thursday took the first concrete step toward closing the dilapidated facility.
A groundbreaking on Fifth Street Northwest, a few blocks south of Missouri Avenue, represents what District officials want to make available citywide: Short-term housing for up to 50 homeless families with on-site services to help stabilize them and transition to permanent homes of their own.
Mayor Muriel Bowser said Relisha’s disappearance sparked a recurring theme she heard from residents during her campaign for mayor in 2014.
“Our city should not be proud of the conditions at D.C. General or the fact that we had made an old hospital a place for families to live,” Bowser said at the groundbreaking Thursday.
“We were all resolved that a little girl named Relisha Rudd should be doing the things that little girl’s do,” Bowser said — her voice thick and choked with emotion.
Relisha has never been found. Police believe she was kidnapped by a janitor who worked at the shelter where she lived with her family inside the former D.C. General Hospital. Khalil Tatum killed his wife and then himself shortly after Relisha disappeared.
The first new facility for homeless families will be in Councilmember Brandon Todd’s Ward 4. He said community partners working together to shape the project included the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, community organizations and civic associations.
“It’s especially exciting for this ward to be the first in the city to reach such a critical milestone in the effort to close D.C. General and replace it with safe, clean and dignified short-term family housing in each ward,” Todd said.
In the coming weeks, work will begin on similar projects in Wards 7 and 8. Construction is set to begin on new buildings within a few months in Wards 3, 5 and 6.
According to a news release from the mayor’s office, the number of homeless families in the District has declined 22 percent in the last year and is down more than 10 percent overall.
D.C. General, which houses a few hundred of families, was never intended to serve as the city’s main family shelter and was opened to provide emergency housing during a bout of cold weather. But the facility’s population has grown despite a lack of family bathrooms, broken elevators and problems with the heating and cooling systems.
Bowser announced her plan to spread smaller family shelters throughout the District last year.