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D.C. General Holds 600 Homeless Children, Often Without Heat, Hot Water, Cribs

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DC GENERAL HOMELESS
D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (seen here on Jan. 4, 2011) has pledged to build up the District's affordable housing stock. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) | AP
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WASHINGTON -- Robin Holloman, 22, and her newborn went without heat for two weeks straight this winter. She said she slept in snow pants and kept her 3-month-old daughter, Autumn, in a snowsuit and bundled in blankets.

Finally, lawyers from the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless intervened, she told The Huffington Post, and she was moved out of her unit to one with working heat. But Holloman said, even on her new floor, she knows of rooms without heat. And she added the hot water seems to stop working "all the time."

"It's not a place you should have your kids," Holloman said.

The place is the District of Columbia's government-run emergency shelter for families on the old D.C. General Hospital campus near the D.C. Jail.

Kevin Cruz, 29, has a room at the D.C. General shelter with his wife and 6-month-old son. When they moved in on Nov. 28, they were not supplied with a crib. As of earlier this week, they still didn't have one. "We have two beds, and we tied them together to make one big bed," he told HuffPost.

Jodi Clark, 26, moved into the shelter with her three children -- a 10-year-old, a 4-year-old and a 4-month-old. They've been bitten by bed bugs, she told HuffPost.

Holloman said her daughter has contracted a cold and the flu and an ear infection. She's had to take the 3-month-old to the emergency room at one of the city's non-abandoned hospitals.

Complaints about appalling conditions at D.C. General are nothing new. The District of Columbia has struggled, and failed, for years to provide decent shelter for homeless families. Recent history has been a series of crises, followed by temporary fixes and attacks on the social safety net.

According to the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, some 1,800 children are now homeless in D.C. Last week, a government census, reviewed by HuffPost, recorded 285 families living at D.C. General with their 595 children. The legal clinic also reported mice infestation and residents being bit by spiders there.

Neither D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray nor D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson returned calls for comment. The city official in charge of homeless families also did not return calls for comment.

So how did 600 children come to reside in a former hospital with untrustworthy heat?

Under then-Mayor Marion Barry in the mid-'80s, the city earned public scorn when it put homeless families up in motel rooms. In the late '90s, the city discovered families living at the massive Community for Creative Non-Violence shelter downtown, a violation of its lease. The shelter was also slammed for its conditions, according to the Washington City Paper's ongoing coverage of the homeless struggles. City workers quickly moved those families out.

Eventually, homeless families ended up in D.C. Village, a notoriously poorly run former nursing home located in an isolated spot in southwest Washington near a wastewater treatment plant. The repurposed building had its share of problems. In 2007, when then-Mayor Adrian Fenty closed the facility, he acknowledged the bed bugs and vowed to do better.

"DC Village residents have complained about the poor living conditions for years including overcrowding, poor food quality and inadequate heating and cooling resources," Fenty said in a press release at the time. "Persistent problems with mice, roaches and bedbugs have been difficult to control and have long plagued the families as well."

Fenty promised a shift away from warehousing homeless families under one crumbling roof. When his administration began moving families into D.C. General, advocates were told the building would be used only on a short-term basis. The hospital gave off an eerie vibe in those early days as a shelter, with its dim lights and old hospital signs denoting cancer wards. After his family had just moved in, a little boy talked to this reporter about how scary the place was.

By February 2010, the shelter held 200 families, some of whom were sleeping on hallway floors and other communal spaces. The elevators didn't work. Walls had peeling paint. Residents smelled mold.

That month, a newborn at the shelter died. It was not the only newborn death.

When allegations surfaced of shelter staff propositioning homeless mothers for sex, Fenty fired the company that managed the shelter. That swift action, along with Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells' hearing, which helped expose the abuses, suggested city leaders might find a solution to D.C.'s growing population of homeless families.

Instead, the city in late 2010 passed new legislation that made it harder for homeless families to access shelter by requiring that they prove they were D.C. residents. D.C. once again put homeless families in hotels. Emails showed that city workers struggled with lack of capacity.

And getting into D.C. General became something of a bureaucratic obstacle course. Families had to fight for those rooms without heat.

During the Great Recession, the number of homeless families increased by 75 percent in the District, said Amber Harding, a staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.

"There is a recession that caused an increase in homeless families," Harding explained. "The way the city responded to it was to make it harder for families to get into shelter, as opposed to looking at resources to serve the real need ... so many people that have no real safe place to go are turned away."

In early February, the Washington Legal Clinic issued a report titled, "Should D.C. Residents Need a Lawyer to Access Emergency Shelter?" It turns out that many of them did.

Clark, the mother of three, said that when she first arrived at D.C. General, she was forced to visit the family intake center across town every day for two weeks before she gained a secure spot inside the building. Each day, she said, she had to move out all her belongings and take a van ride to intake. She had to chose between housing or taking her oldest child to school. After her son was absent for several days, the school called the city's child protective services -- a move that could have meant losing her son to foster care.

Cruz said he was turned away multiple times from D.C. General before finally gaining those two beds he could tie together..

Holloman said it took her nearly four weeks of daily battles at the intake center before she was let into D.C. General. Even then, her cold room was a tenuous perch from which to restart her life. The intake workers tried to kick her out, she said, because she didn't have a birth certificate for her daughter.

"I don't know what they were trying to claim," Holloman said. "I gave them the paperwork from me having Autumn. They were just stuck on the birth certificate part." The legal clinic had to step in.

Harding said there is a solution to the D.C. General mess: Fund more affordable housing.

The city has devoted $4 million to a local rent supplement program that will help roughly 300 families find housing. Applications closed last fall, Harding said. The program, which covers only a fraction of the need, is a more cost-effective solution than D.C. General. Harding said that it costs the city $15,000 a year to support one family in subsidized housing versus $54,000 a year to house one family at D.C. General.

The city recently announced a $417 million budget surplus, and Mayor Gray has also pledged to build up the District's affordable housing stock. "They have this opportunity now that the city is doing well," Harding said. "Now's their chance to do right."

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