polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

From Homelessness to the White House

by Anna Fogel

As I drove around Ramallah, West Bank, I was struck by something that was absent: homelessness. On streets in major cities from Mongolia to India to Malawi to the USA, homelessness is evident, often from the moment one arrives in the city. I asked the young Palestinian who was driving me around about the lack of homelessness, and he responded, offended by the very question – we would never let a friend or family member be homeless, he protested, ever. We always support each other, and we would just never let that happen. There are certainly hidden homeless, as we call them in the USA – people who are doubled up with family or friends and while not living on the street, are still living in cramped, subpar situations.

I thought about the absence of homelessness in the West Bank as I walked into the D.C. General Emergency Family Hypothermia Shelter, the largest family shelter in Washington, D.C., currently housing 192 families and over 300 children. It is hard for me to describe the environment at D.C. General, where the Homeless Children Playtime Project has recently started working. The complex where D.C. General is located is not conducive to families or children – on one corner of the large cement plot is the D.C. jail, and as you walk towards D.C. General, there are signs for a STD Center. The moment you enter the D.C. General building it is impossible to mistake it for anything other than an abandoned hospital. All of the signs from its days as a hospital are unmoved – indicating wings for intensive care, dental services and other hospital services – ironic considering the dirty and unhygienic environment it now provides its residents. The hallways and stairways are covered in grime, heartbreaking as small children sit on the floor playing. Security guards are placed on each floor, emphasizing the already oppressive atmosphere.

D.C. General was originally the city’s first and only public hospital, opened in 1806, and was closed, controversially, in 2001. It is now the focal point of D.C.’s efforts to serve homeless families. Family shelters have been full every night since the beginning of January, and D.C. General is over-capacity – evident by the overflow rows of cots in the cafeteria, as families sleep in refugee-like settings. In 2009, 20% more D.C. families were counted as homeless than in 2008, with almost 1,500 children. In August, the city announced plans to increase the number of beds in family shelters, though this has clearly not been sufficient to address the demand.

During one of my first visits to D.C. General, as I stood in the entrance hallway waiting for the HCPP program to start, I saw a young woman with her two young children waiting by an elevator. They were inside, though all bundled up in hats, gloves and scarves, as this was one of the snowiest weeks in D.C.’s history. The two children – a young boy about 2 and a girl about 5, were sitting on the floor, half-heartedly playing. I glanced over when I saw the little boy jerk forward and realized that he was falling asleep – tired enough to fall asleep in a fluorescently lit hallway, noisy with other children and adults walking around, still in his outdoor clothes, and sitting upright. When I mentioned it to his mom, she smiled sadly and picked him up, at which point he promptly fell sound asleep on her shoulder. She was waiting for the health clinic, which operated weekly at the hospital, and she explained that they were exhausted because they had had to walk a lot that day. The girl was still sitting on the floor and also started to doze while sitting in place until I went over to play with her.

HCPP runs the only program in D.C. General for the children, organizing a weekly playtime for the kids, often attended by more than 50 children, a weekly playtime for children whose parents are in a GED class, and has a monthly field trip program for the teenagers. Living in D.C. General impacts even the smallest children, as Jamila Larson, founder and CEO of HCPP, describes:
“It was the youngest ones who always got me. The newborn babies returning from the hospital to a homeless shelter as their first home. No balloons or fresh cribs waiting for them. The toothless toddlers smile broadly, wiggling across the dirty shelter floor, happy to be alive, oblivious to their circumstances in life. The preschool children are eager to show off their early reading skills or chase around a ball in our weekly children’s program in the shelters. They start to show signs of distress living in a crowded communal environment, as they cling to volunteers for attention. The elementary age children show even more signs of irritability, anxiety and depression. But now it is the teenagers who are haunting me the most. They stand on the sidelines with their lanky bodies, wanting to be invisible and seen at the same time.”
The most recent field trip for the teenagers was a tour of the West Wing of the White House, complete with a bowling game. During the last few months, the teenagers have gone on an ice-skating trip (most of their first times ice-skating) and were hosted by Marian Wright Edelman at the Children Defense Fund’s award dinner honoring resilient young people (where many of the kids had their first multi-course meal).