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Youth Voices: What happened to protecting D.C.’s homeless children?

Jared Flippen is an intern with the Children’s Defense Fund for the Spring 2020 semester.

Most people in the District are familiar with the case of Relisha Rudd. In February 2014, the 8-year-old girl was living with her mother at D.C. General, a hospital turned family homeless shelter, when she was abducted. She is believed to have been taken by Kahlil Malik Tatum, a janitor at the shelter. A month later, Tatum’s body was found — an apparent suicide. Relisha’s body was never found.

The case captivated the District. It led to discussions about what the District could do to better address homelessness and cast a light on how our society does not treat the deaths of our most vulnerable the same as the deaths of our most privileged. In 2015, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) released a five-year plan to end homelessness in the city. The plan was to make homelessness a “rare, brief, and nonrecurring experience” by 2020. The issue was going to be solved. There would never be another Relisha Rudd.

That dream fell apart on Feb. 6, when 11-month-old Makenzie Anderson was beaten to death when staying in a hotel the city was using as a homeless shelter.

A hotel. As a makeshift homeless shelter. For children to live in.

Why were children experiencing homelessness living in hotels? The District resorted to using hotels to house families experiencing homelessness when Bowser closed D.C. General and the city still hadn’t built enough shelters to meet the demand. A year ago, the District pledged to stop using motels.

Despite the mayor’s plan to end homelessness, a child experiencing homelessness was murdered. Where is all of the commotion? Where are the anger and the sadness and the grief that were there for Relisha? These things are not to be found within the Bowser administration. It has made little to no comment about Makenzie’s death. For an administration that has made homelessness a top issue, its failure to adequately acknowledge this tragedy is disheartening.

The grief is there among the families who lived with Makenzie at the Quality Inn. “It’s Relisha all over again,” one of them told a Post columnist in February. Families experiencing homelessness, already dealing with the inherent stress of homelessness, now also are dealing with the stress of how to keep their children safe in a hotel where a girl was just murdered.

It is clear that District officials did not learn the lesson they so desperately needed to learn from Relisha.

We need to devote more attention to society’s most vulnerable. The ones who can fall through the cracks. The whole city listened to Relisha’s story and vowed it would not happen again. But it did.

Why is the death of Makenzie not getting more attention? Are we numb? Do we feel powerless? Yes, it may be a tragedy that a poor girl died in a hotel room, but what can I do about it? Whatever the case may be, the outrage is lost. Obviously, the outbreak of the novel coronavirus has swamped our attention, but even before then, Makenzie was barely talked about.

Are we okay with this? Even if we were somehow able to put aside the murder of a child who was put in the care of the city, are we okay with children growing up in homeless shelters and hotels? Are we okay with children being homeless?

We need to look far and wide to support people who would otherwise fall through the cracks. Their lives depend on it.

This essay was originally published in the Washington Post on April 3, 2020.

2020-04-29T14:17:53-05:00April 27th, 2020|