That's the question attorney Matthew Fraidin was tasked with finding out. Fraidin, an associate professor at UDC's David A. Clarke School of Law and visiting professor at Georgetown University, had been tapped by Councilmember Tommy Wells to investigate the conditions at D.C. General's emergency family shelter and figure out if the abandoned hospital was a suitable place for children. Fraidin and his students conducted 10 visits to the shelter during this past summer.
Fraidin testified before the D.C. Council about his findings on Nov. 8 [PDF]. While much if not all of the debate over homeless services has concerned Wells' residency-requirement bill, which is slated for a vote today, the shelter's cruddy, crowded conditions have not gone away. Wells told the Washington Post recently that the D.C. General campus has become a dumping ground.
Fraidin says that after making those 10 visits this past summer, he has come to the conclusion that the city should stop putting families in D.C. General. "There are significant concerns that relate to food, health, safety, privacy and social development. A good communal shelter is a bad place for kids. This particular institution has significant problems," he says in an interview with City Desk.
Fraidin revealed his findings during the November hearing. He stated:
For example, a 10-year old boy, who said he likes school and that his favorite subject is math, expressed worry that there is no place for him to do his homework at D.C. General. The same little boy said he can't have his school friends over, because he lives in the shelter, and can't play with other children who live in the shelter because they always have to be quiet and are not allowed to visit in each other's rooms.
The mother of two girls said "all of the kids who live here are afraid, and they are suffering. They have to be quiet all the time, they can't play in the hallways, but it is not safe to play outside with all the smoking and drinking and prison discharges going on.”
Children and parents pointed out that because there is no outdoor play area, outside play is limited to bare dirt and gravel.
And here's more from Fraidin:
Another parent said "it would be better if they had at least one bathtub on each floor for children that are not old enough to get in the shower. Right now, residents must wash younger children in the bathroom sinks.”
Many residents said they simply cannot eat the food provided at the shelter. One woman said she and her daughters all got food poisoning during the first week they lived there.
Many children are kept in the rooms to avoid residents who are smoking, drinking, cursing, fighting, and using drugs.
Numerous people confirmed that elevators are frequently out of service. One woman told me that she carried her baby – in his stroller — up five flights of stairs. Her friend said "It's lucky I was there that time, so I could carry her groceries for her.” Another woman said a mother and child had been caught in a broken elevator for 30 or 45 minutes.
The mother of three little children said the shelter has mice, flies, and scabies, even though she is "always cleaning.” Another mother said her "one-year old baby's hand was caught in a snap trap.”
In one interview, I learned that a family had been separated due to conditions at the shelter. The heat in the shelter was so severe that one woman brought her child to a grandmother's house, where the child had been living without her mother.
Scabies? Food poisoning? Broken elevators? Fraidin concluded his testimony with a critique of Wells' homeless legislation. The bill would relax restrictions on the types of shelter options for homeless families. In other words, it could produce more D.C. Generals. Fraidin testified:
Budget pressures are hard to resist in these times. The voices of children and parents at D.C. General, however, make it clear that removing the apartment-style requirement will harm children. We know that insufficient attention to children's needs actually costs money in the long run, while costing the children a chance at a productive and happy life. Many policy questions are susceptible of multiple understandings and a range of reasonable choices. On this one, however, there is no way to argue that more communal care will be good for children. The children and parents whom we met speak with one voice, which says that we should move toward closing D.C. General, rather than housing more and more children in institutions.
In the past two years, two infants died at D.C. General. Last year, it became known for its mismanagement and rough conditions (no air condition on certain floors, peeling paint, mold, and food that caused some kids to have to go to a working hospital). On April 2, Mayor Adrian Fenty announced that the shelter's management would be fired.