Relisha Rudd, one year later

Jonah Lewis, a junior double-majoring in sociology and political science, is a Hatchet columnist.

One year ago today, I implored GW students to learn about Relisha Rudd, an 8-year-old homeless girl from Southeast D.C. who tragically went missing from the shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital, where she had been living with her family.

In the wake of Rudd’s case, many hoped to see an expansion of affordable and subsidized housing and the speedy closure of D.C. General. But these changes have not occurred. Instead, the D.C. government seems to have all but forgotten Rudd and the pain and suffering she endured because of both her parents’ and the government’s failings.

For GW students – particularly freshmen, who were not here to follow the case initially – and for D.C. residents in general, we should be outraged by the way the city has handled its homelessness crisis.

Rudd’s disappearance happened after her mother allowed her to go home with a shelter janitor named Khalil Tatum. Eighteen days after she was last seen alive, police began an earnest search for Rudd because social workers had become concerned about her.

A little over a week later, I published my column, calling on students to learn about the case. Tatum was found dead of suicide in Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens in Northeast D.C. on March 31. Rudd is still missing and presumed dead.

Rudd’s case prompted many questions about how a child – whose family had many interactions with social services – could have gone missing from a city-run homeless shelter at the hands of an employee for weeks before any red flags were raised.

But as the case fades away, and the hope of finding Rudd tragically falters, our greatest question must be: In the wake of Relisha Rudd, can our elected officials be held to the task of caring for the city’s homeless children?

Luckily, the case did bring some well-needed attention to the horrors of D.C. General, including pests, unsafe conditions, assaults, poor security and staff taking advantage of residents. Six months after Rudd’s disappearance, I criticized the lack of affordable housing that led to the city’s homelessness crisis and continual reliance on D.C. General as a solution.

But despite the attention, the once so-called temporary shelter at D.C. General remains open and overcrowded – even as city leaders have repeatedly promised, long before Rudd, that it would be closed.

A year before Rudd went missing, then-Mayor Vincent Gray promised to put $100 million toward ending the homelessness crisis and eventually closing D.C. General. After Rudd’s disappearance, the Gray administration worked overtime to create an ultimately unrealistic plan to add multiple shelters across the city.

Now, a year since Rudd went missing, Mayor Muriel Bowser has released a tentative plan to close D.C. General and create smaller shelters across the city as the D.C. government transitions to putting the homeless in longer-term apartment-living situations. But the plan doesn’t set a firm date for closing D.C. General, making it suspect already.

D.C. General has rapidly become a fixture in D.C., and even if it were to close, there is no guarantee it would not be recreated in some form in another part of the city. This echoes the case of D.C. Village, a similar “temporary shelter” that closed in 2007 only to have many residents move to the current D.C. General campus.

The fact that Rudd’s case has brought no major change to a facility that was already criticized and suspect long before her disappearance reveals the homelessness issue is larger than we may have expected. Rudd’s case was tragic long before she went missing – she was a little girl forced to live in a hellish caricature of a home.

It is clear that not even a tragedy will force the District to seriously address the homelessness issue. Instead, it is on us.

This issue will never be solved if no one cares about it – and not enough people do. It is our responsibility to keep this issue alive. It is a disrespect to Rudd to allow her torment and tragedy to lead to nothing more than vague platitudes from our elected representatives about how one day the homelessness crisis will get better.

Many of us might feel like we can do little more to solve homelessness than donate money or food every now and then, but we always have our voices. And it is our time – through our letters, our phone calls and our actions at the ballot box – to tell the government of our city that D.C. General must be closed and family homelessness must become a relic of our past.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.