September 27, 2022

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When D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser announced that the city was about to end its use of local hotels to shelter unhoused families, she spoke of “giving all families the support they deserve.”

“What we know from this experience is that when we build citywide solutions to citywide challenges, we can build a fairer, more equitable DC — a DC that provides better opportunities to more families,’’ she said in a news release that lauded the phasing out of the city’s reliance on the hotels as “a major milestone” in the District’s plan to end homelessness.

That statement was made on Aug. 13, 2020, and afterward, the city followed through with moving the remaining families out of the Days Inn on New York Avenue, a place that parents and advocates repeatedly described as unfit for raising children. It is also the hotel where a homeless 8-year-old girl named Relisha Rudd was last seen with her abductor.

Two girls went missing from the same D.C. shelter 8 years ago. One came back. The other was Relisha Rudd.

Two years later, the city is again housing children at that hotel. This time, they are the children of migrants who were bused to the nation’s capital from Texas and Arizona in a political stunt that has created a local humanitarian crisis, according to mutual aid volunteers who have been helping the families.

Those volunteers describe the children as caught in the middle of partisan plays and lacking support from a city that doesn’t want to claim them.

On Wednesday, following an announcement from Bowser that children who arrived on the migrant buses would be able to attend the city’s school, Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said about 40 migrant children had been enrolled in schools and would have access to needed services.

But volunteers with the mutual aid network that has been working closest with the families describe having to fight to make that happen and say that come Monday, when schools across the District welcome back students, the children at the hotels won’t be among them. They say the city’s delay in allowing the students to enroll and a lack of support from city agencies has left the families facing challenges that won’t allow the students to start school on time or attend regularly. The say they worry about families who don’t have case managers, access to medical care, identifying documents, an address they can put on paperwork or transportation to and from the isolated hotels.

Mariel Vallano, a D.C. middle school ESL teacher who has been helping the families, said school officials worry every year that some children might go unseen and unenrolled if outreach is not done, but that is not the case with the young people at the hotels. The city knows they exist because it has been housing them, she said.

“All of the children’s birthdates and full names are documented,” Vallano said. She said the mayor and other city officials can’t say, “Oh, I didn’t know that these kids needed to enroll in school.”

Madhvi Bahl, an organizer for Sanctuary DMV and Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network, said the city’s failure to provide support for the families is not an “oversight.”

“This is a policy choice, and not people slipping through the cracks,” she said. “It’s kind of like a starve-them-out tactic. If we don’t let them have access to education or health care, and make them live in hotels without clean anything, they will choose to leave eventually. It’s definitely all planned.”

On Monday, the Defense Department denied a second request from Bowser to deploy the National Guard to help the city deal with the thousands of asylum seekers who have been bused from Texas and Arizona so far. More than 7,000 migrants have reportedly come from Texas alone after Gov. Greg Abbott (R) began sending the buses in April. In May, buses also started arriving from Arizona.

Those displays were meant as a statement to the Biden administration, but they’ve also provided a test for a mayor who had vowed to get people off the streets and out of shelters. The migrants, many of whom have fled death threats and other dangers, have added to the city’s homeless count.

City leaders may not have asked for this problem, but it is now theirs to address, and they have the resources and ability to do so. The children who have arrived on those buses — and who will inevitably come on the next round of them — may stay for one week or one year or longer. But while they are here, they are the city’s children. They are our children. And they need help, not politics.

Bowser was right when she said, “When we build citywide solutions to citywide challenges, we can build a fairer, more equitable DC — a DC that provides better opportunities to more families.” But doing that requires taking action.

After the Defense Department’s recent refusal to help, Bowser released a series of tweets addressing the situation.

“We are going to move forward with our planning to ensure that when people are coming through DC on their way to their final destination that we have a humane setting for them,” she tweeted.

Their final destination. Those words were not lost on the mutual aid volunteers who have been handling, to the point of exhaustion, the needs of the arriving asylum seekers.

Bahl said city leaders want people to believe the migrants are passing through the area, but many are staying.

Volunteers described dozens of families living at the Hampton Inn on New York Avenue, which is also used to quarantine people who test positive for the coronavirus or monkeypox and have nowhere to go. They said plans call for those families to join others already at the Days Inn, but that setting is also not ideal for children. The conditions are confining, and the area is isolating for families.

The District decided to do right by homeless children — but only after pleas, worries and questions

When I last wrote about the hotels on New York Avenue, hundreds of homeless children were living there and struggling to get to and from school. They were having to cross busy lanes of traffic to reach the closest bus stop and take several forms of public transportation to schools spread across the city. As a solution, the city started providing a shuttle to take the families to the closest Metro stations.

Vallano said a shuttle would be “extremely helpful” for the families, but more support is also needed. Many of the families had their personal documents destroyed when they entered the country, and they arrived with few belongings.

“Our main ask is that unhoused migrant families receive the same level of support as other unhoused families,” Vallano said. “These families have chosen to remain here and need long-term support like any other family.”

She said the oldest of the children at the hotels is 17 and the youngest is less than a month old. She was at the hospital when that baby was born.

She helped the mother by filling out paperwork, talking to doctors and pediatricians, and driving her and the newborn home from the hospital. And then, because the families have been told not to use the hotel address on any paperwork, Vallano provided her own home address so that a social security card for the child could be mailed.

“We get very involved because we have to,” she said. “There is no one else helping them.”

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