COMMENT

"We knew that baby was in trouble," she said, turtle-hunched inside her jacket against the rain as she waited for the D6 bus with a knot of other women who live in a motel on one of the District of Columbia's ugliest stretches of street. "It's Relisha all over again."

She's remembering Relisha Rudd, the girl whose disappearance from the largest family shelter in the nation's capital five years ago awakened the city to its staggering crisis of homeless children.

This time, the child is Makenzie Anderson, and she was killed last week, a month short of her first birthday.

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Time to wake up again.

"The tragic death of an 11-month-old should be yet another wake-up call for the city," said Jamila Larson, founder of the Homeless Children's Playtime Project, a nonprofit that offers programs and support for children in the city's shelters.

The toddler's home was a room in the Quality Inn, a motel that serves as one of the city's biggest emergency family homeless shelters - and its biggest shame.

Residents call it "the Trap."

"Once you're inside, you can't get out. There's a curfew and so many rules it feels like jail. It's a trap," said one of the women I talked to. All of them spoke on the condition of anonymity, for fear of getting in trouble with the security guards. We had to go around the corner to talk.

The place looks battered. They don't let journalists inside at all, but I was there with a volunteer play group a while back.

The bathrooms on the ground floor didn't always work, the walls were scuffed and filthy, the carpet was threadbare. Only one elevator worked, the furniture was falling apart, and there were constant reports about mould and pests.

That's what I saw with my own eyes. Residents outside, at bus stops, under freeway overpasses and in the parking garage, filled in the rest for me.

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They say they are treated like inmates. They must check in and out every time they come and go. Curfew is at 9:30 p.m. Security guards bang on the doors at 10 p.m. and demand a physical check inside the room to count and verify who is in every room, waking up kids who may already be asleep. If adults aren't in their rooms at that check, they could lose their housing.

"They figure if you're not in bed at 9:30, you have another place to stay and don't need it," said one mom, who keeps missing her son's football games. He's allowed to be out if she shows proof of his game, but she said she can't go.

No one is allowed to congregate in the hallways. There are signs telling children they are not allowed to play. There are no guests allowed. You can be only on your floor or the second floor, where the washer and dryer and vending machines are. It's the floor where little Makenzie was killed.

Residents are allowed only a microwave, no hot plates or cooking utensils. Sheets are changed once a week.

To the residents, the rules are dehumanising. To the government agency charged with trying to manage a huge social crisis, the rules are the best they can come up with to prevent another Relisha Rudd from disappearing, to prevent people who don't really need the housing from taking up needed space, to prevent the chaos that happened when everyone came and went as they pleased.

What's that, you say? Something like beggars can't be choosers? Or aren't they lucky to have a roof over their heads? Or wouldn't it be nice to get maid service once a week in your house?

Fine. Think what you want about whether the city has a moral obligation to house children and parents who have no place to sleep.

But there is this - the city has a contract with Quality Inn, paying full price for sold-out rooms, the standard rates the lodge would get if hundreds of Karens and Bobs from Oklahoma coming to see the monuments filled the place to capacity every single night, even in the low season.

The motel does minimal maintenance, the maid service is weekly, the fitness center and pool are shut down. They're making bank.

The contract with Axar Management was for about $5.5 million this year, according to the Office of the Inspector General's report on this. It's a terrible contract.

People participate in a rememberance celebration of Relisha Rudd in 2016. Photo / Washington Post / Marvin Joseph
People participate in a rememberance celebration of Relisha Rudd in 2016. Photo / Washington Post / Marvin Joseph

Roughly calculated, that comes to about $112 a day for every room, 365 days a year, that the taxpayers are giving to a motel that would rate zero stars and loads of hate on Yelp.

The motel owners are planning to close and renovate next month (hey, Target moved in down the street - time for more development!) And they are getting a sweet deal because a city can't agree on the undeniable need for affordable housing.

When Relisha disappeared, the city took a long, hard look at the idea that housing more than 600 children and their families in an abandoned hospital doesn't make sense. That shelter was finally razed last year (to make room for some new development!), and the families were moved to three cheap motels and several, smaller shelters throughout the area.

And guess what: It still didn't work.

The Department of Health and Human Services is dealing with a sprawling crisis that is about way more than its budget, its policies and even its most earnest work can solve. The current census shows that more than 500 children are spread among the three motels.

This is about development and priorities.

This is about the people who have become disposable.

Police said Makenzie's death was a homicide, the toddler was beaten to death, and no arrests have been made. The investigation is continuing, and officials wouldn't comment on the case.

"We want to make sure children are safe and families are staying safe," said Department of Human Services Deputy Administrator Noah Abraham. His department did verify the rules the families complained about, though they try to evaluate them on a case-by-case basis.

And as the motel gets ready to shut down, the department aims to work with each family to find permanent solutions, rather than shelter-hopping. "We're doing hands-on case management with each family in the exit process," Abraham said.

In the meantime, overburdened case workers are at the motel between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. After that, it's just the security guards.

Larson recently testified before the Department of Human Services Performance Oversight Hearing, asking for a team of coordinators specifically looking at kids such as Makenzie. The hotels have no mental-health experts on site, in the epicenter of the city's most brittle families.

Larson said they need more - someone, anyone with a background in social services.

"Had there been someone in this role at the Quality Inn, enrolling families of young children in evidenced-based home-visiting services, for example, could this tragedy have been prevented?" she said. "We believe the lack of comprehensive support services in shelters for families may well have contributed to the death of baby [Makenzie] and the loss of our dear Relisha."

It shouldn't take another dead child for the entire city to figure out it has a problem.