The Children Are Speaking. Are We Listening?
The student-led movement sweeping our nation is awakening us to how much we adults have failed to keep children safe. The Parkland students are speaking through their personal trauma to shine a light on young people in communities, including Washington, D.C., who have suffered for too long in silence from gun violence haunting low-income neighborhoods.
It should not take a tragedy to wake us up from complacency—but too often it does. When Relisha was abducted four years ago last month, her little life was examined to uncover all the ways adults and systems failed her. Years later, do we still remember how we failed her, or have we forgotten and gone back to business as usual?
We at Playtime believe there is still so much more to be done to ensure children are seen, heard, and valued. We must create a city that sees families beyond their housing status and addresses their needs in a comprehensive way. As our city rushes to close D.C. General Emergency Family Shelter in about six months, we are focused on ensuring that children in shelters continue to have access to the healing powers of play, wherever they are. We want to build on the success of our Playtime program at the Quality Inn where we have served 175 children since we launched there in January 2017—but we need the space to successfully expand to other shelter sites.
Most children experiencing family homelessness live in overflow shelter motels, where more than 360 families are currently housed; this number is expected to grow this year to accommodate the closure of D.C. General. Families stay in these settings for an average of nine months where there are generally no services for children.
As I testified before the Human Services Committee about three weeks ago, one thing that has not changed enough in the homeless service system over the years, despite our best efforts, is that children often remain invisible. Yet, children outnumber adults living in family shelters.
With the seven new Short-Term Family Housing sites projected to open in the coming months, this is an opportunity to ensure our children are seen and heard, and that their needs are addressed.
Though the Department of Human Services is working diligently to improve the case management system, far too many children are not getting the services they need. To ensure the time families spend in these new housing units is really short-term, the city must provide services that meet the urgent developmental needs and enormous risks these children face, starting from day one—and that includes the motels.
All family housing programs should be truly trauma-informed with comprehensive clinical case management services. This must begin with the RFPs that are drafted to select the service providers for each new site, with oversight to ensure that providers meet strict criteria, and that the provision of critical services is actually occurring once the new sites are open. Only then can the goal of making homelessness rare, brief and nonrecurring become a reality.
My testimony includes our recommendations for the city to see and serve children in family shelters. Only by seeing children as worthy of the same level of services as adults will we be able to say: Never again. Never again will we lose a child on our watch. Never again will children feel unsafe in shelters. Never again will their needs go unheeded. Every child in the homeless service system is valuable and irreplaceable, so let’s start showing it.