Growing Up At D.c. General: How Kids Cope With Shelter Life (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Growing Up At D.C. General: How Kids Cope With Shelter Life

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
We'll turn now to the lives of D.C. General's youngest residents. As of this week, 513 kids reside within the shelter's walls. But many of them say the place they call home feels increasingly unsafe. Especially after eight-year-old shelter resident Relisha Rudd disappeared. Tara Boyle visited D.C. General to find out how it's many, many children cope with being homeless.

MS. TARA BOYLE

00:00:27
If you're a child at D.C. General looking for places to play, you have a few options. There's a busted up sidewalk, littered with broken glass and trash, just outside the shelter. Inside, you can try to find a corner in the cramped hospital room you share with your entire family. And then there's another option.

MS. DANIELLE ROTHMAN

00:00:44
We have our dress-up corner over there. We have our dollhouse there.

BOYLE

00:00:50
If you go to the first floor, pass through heavy hospital doors and make your way down a long scuffed-up hallway, you'll find a series of brightly-colored rooms. Art projects cover the walls, and everywhere you look, there are toys.

ROTHMAN

00:01:03
And over here different parts of our play kitchen. The kids love making play food.

BOYLE

00:01:08
Danielle Rothman and I are in one of the few spaces reserved for children at D.C. General. It's run by staff and volunteers from a nonprofit called the Homeless Children's Playtime Project. Rothman is the project's site manager.

ROTHMAN

00:01:20
Our goals are really to provide a sense of stability and a place for children to experience normal child development while they're living amidst the chaos of homelessness.

BOYLE

00:01:30
And speaking of chaos, it is about to descend on this space. It's almost 6:30 on a Tuesday evening. And kids and parents are lining up in the hallway. Playtime is about to begin.

BOYLE

00:01:46
One of the first children to sign in is five-year-old Christian. The first thing he tells me, he likes sports. A lot.

CHRISTIAN

00:01:54
Football and basketball and baseball and soccer ball and tennis.

BOYLE

00:02:02
He's also pretty interested in taking the microphone and interviewing me.

CHRISTIAN

00:02:06
How do you feel when you're in a coat?

BOYLE

00:02:09
When I'm in a coat? Well, today I would feel very hot because it's very hot outside. Right?

CHRISTIAN

00:02:14
Where do you, where do live?

BOYLE

00:02:17
I live in Maryland.

BOYLE

00:02:18
And then he asks this question…

CHRISTIAN

00:02:21
And how do you, how do you feel about that little girl Relisha?

BOYLE

00:02:26
"How do you feel about that little girl Relisha?" he asks. He's referring to eight-year-old Relisha Rudd, who lived at this shelter before disappearing nearly three months ago.

CHRISTIAN

00:02:35
Because I know Relisha. She's my cousin.

BOYLE

00:02:39
She's your cousin?

CHRISTIAN

00:02:40
How do you feel about her?

BOYLE

00:02:41
I feel sad. How do you feel? Before he can answer, a volunteer across the room calls out to Christian and he goes off to play. But questions about Relisha abound among the children here. Until recently, she was their playmate, a regular participant in this program.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD

00:02:57
Did you, did you find that girl yet?

BOYLE

00:03:01
You mean Relisha?

CHILD

00:03:02
Yeah.

BOYLE

00:03:03
No, they did not find her yet.

CHILD

00:03:05
Why?

BOYLE

00:03:07
I think they're looking really hard for her, but they haven't found her yet.

CHILD

00:03:11
Oh, you're probably look for her everywhere.

BOYLE

00:03:14
Upstairs in Playtime's pre-teen program, older kids also bring up Relisha. Nine-year-old Hassan says he used to play with Relisha and her siblings.

HASSAN

00:03:23
People -- a girl, she got kidnapped.

BOYLE

00:03:26
Relisha? What do you think about that?

HASSAN

00:03:28
That that's sad.

BOYLE

00:03:31
Hassan has been living at D.C. General for a year, and is eager to leave this place behind.

HASSAN

00:03:35
Because it's all dirty and rats be in here. And he -- we going to get a place soon. So it's sad because Relisha wasn't here to see her place yet.

MS. HEATHER WADE

00:03:52
Eve for kids who didn't know Relisha, they still -- they're uncomfortable and they're a little scared because the situation isn't resolved.

BOYLE

00:04:00
Heather Wade runs the Playtime Project's pre-teen program at D.C. General. She says counselors have come here to talk with young people about Relisha's disappearance. But the image of Kahlil Tatum, the janitor who allegedly kidnapped Relisha, still haunts these children.

WADE

00:04:15
I will never forget one of the girls in the pre-teen program walked up to me the day after and she said -- she said, "Is Mr. Tatum going to take me too?" And it was just, it was heartbreaking to hear her say that, and just heartbreaking to know that she didn't feel safe.

BOYLE

00:04:33
Safety has been a long-running concern at D.C. General. So is the fact that there's no playground to serve the hundreds of children living on this sprawling campus. Jamila Larson, the executive director of the Playtime Project, says a playground is long overdue.

MS. JAMILA LARSON

00:04:47
I always get concerned every time I come up there. There are children running into the streets, and not having any safe place to play, other than the sidewalk.

BOYLE

00:04:58
She says Pepco and other donors are eager to pay for a playground, and it could be built this summer. All they need is for the city to give the green light. B.B. Otero, the city's deputy mayor for health and human services, agrees that kids at D.C. General need a better place to play.

MS. B.B. OTERO

00:05:12
But whatever we build has to absolutely be well supervised. It has to be accessible in a way that the coming and going to the playground area is safe for children. And it has to -- we have to take into consideration anything else that may be happening in that -- on that campus.

BOYLE

00:05:33
Otero is one of several city leaders overseeing a review of how D.C. agencies handled the Relisha Rudd case. I asked her about that review and whether she's confident that D.C. General is a safe place for residents.

OTERO

00:05:44
I am. We're certainly not waiting for the recommendations. I don't think any of the agencies are waiting for the recommendations to act. All of the agencies involved, I know that we have taken a close look at the security -- at the security issues, and we've taken a close look at the policies.

BOYLE

00:06:01
Back at D.C. General, it's after 8:00 p.m., and parents are returning to pick up their children from the Playtime Project. More than 50 kids, from infants to teens, took part in the program tonight. Danielle Rothman is pleased with how things went.

ROTHMAN

00:06:14
I really just always find it kind of joyful, because I think when the kids leave, you just really see how much a wonderful time they had. And it feels like you've done something, and that's -- you've given somebody something that they deserve.

BOYLE

00:06:27
But then we head outside, to a very different scene. Small children and their parents stand around in the dark. A few yards away, several people are smoking pot. An ice cream truck sits at the curb, its cheery music making the scene all the more surreal. What Rothman wants and what parents and city officials and the kids themselves all say they want, is for children here to feel safe, and to be able to leave this place before it leaves a lasting imprint on their childhoods. I'm Tara Boyle.
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