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If you're one of the hundreds of children living at D.C. General, the city’s family homeless shelter, where do you go to play?
The options, it turns out, are few. 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.
But on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, children at the shelter do have an option. It’s called the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project. You find it by passing through heavy hospital doors and making your way down a long, scuffed-up hallway. Eventually, you’ll come upon a series of brightly-colored rooms. Art projects cover the walls, and everywhere you look, there are toys.
“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,” says Danielle Rothman, the Playtime Project’s site manager at D.C. General.
In one of the project’s play rooms, the space filled with dress-up costumes, craft supplies, a huge dollhouse, and a play kitchen.
“The kids love making play food,” she says. “And it’s so nice, because they don't have a place right now to play in a real kitchen like I might have done with my mom, so this is a chance for them to have that normal experience.”
It doesn't take long for kids and parents to line up outside, waiting for their chance to come in and play. One of the first children to sign in is 5-year-old Christian. The first thing he says is that he likes sports. A lot.
“Football and basketball and baseball and soccer ball and tennis,” he says.
He’s also pretty interested in taking the microphone and interviewing me.
“How do you feel in a coat?” he asks. “Where do you live?” The questions continue. “How do you feel when it’s sunny? When it’s rainy?”
And then he asks this question: “How do you feel, how do you feel about that little girl Relisha? Because I know Relisha, she’s my cousin,” he says.
He’s referring to 8-year-old Relisha Rudd, who lived at this shelter before being kidnapped nearly three months ago by D.C. General janitor Khalil Tatum. Until recently, Relisha was a regular participant in this program. And the kids here ask about her over and over again.
“Did you find that girl yet?” asks one small girl.
“You mean Relisha?” I answer. “No, they did not find her yet.”
Upstairs in Playtime’s pre-teen program, older kids also bring up Relisha. Hassan, 9, says he used to play with Relisha and her siblings.
“A girl just got kidnapped,” he tells me.
“What do you think about that?” I ask him.
“That that’s sad.”
Hassan has been living at D.C. General for a year, and is eager to leave this place behind.
“It’s all dirty and rats be in here, and we going to get a place soon, so it’s sad because Relisha wasn't here to see her place yet,” he says.
Heather Wade runs the Playtime Project’s pre-teen program at D.C. General. She says mental health counselors have come here to talk with young people about Relisha’s disappearance. But the image of Kahlil Tatum, the janitor who took Relisha, still haunts these children.
“I will never forget one of the girls in the pre-teen program walked up to me the day after and said, ‘Is Mr. Tatum going to take me too?’” she says. “And it was heartbreaking to hear her say that, and heartbreaking to know that she didn't feel safe.”
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.
“I always get concerned every time I come up there,” she says. “There are children running in the streets, and not having any safe place to play, other than the sidewalk.”
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.
“We're looking at a patch of grass right outside the shelter, so as immediately accessible as possible, which we think would be wise for safety reasons, for accessibility reasons. We just want it to be as close as possible to where the children live and come outside every day," Larson says.
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.
“But whatever we build has to absolutely be well supervised, it has to be accessible in a way that coming and going to the playground area is safe for children,” she says. “We have to take into consideration anything else that may be happening on that campus.”
Otero is one of several city leaders overseeing a review of how D.C. agencies handled the Relisha Rudd case. She says she’s confident that D.C. General is a safe place for residents.
“We're certainly not waiting for the recommendations. I don't think any of the agencies are waiting for the recommendations,” she says. “All of the agencies involved, I know we have taken a close look at the security issues, and we've taken a close look at the policies.”
Back at D.C. General, it’s after 8 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.
“I really just always find it kind of joyful, because I think when the kids leave, you just really see what a wonderful time they've had. And it feels like you've done something, and you've given somebody something that they deserve.”
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.
“I worry about the kids and the families. I definitely think about the kids and families when I go home and hope that there are protections for their safety,” she says.
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.
Music: "Tiptoes in the Parlor" by Peals from Walking Field