Baby dolls, tiny trucks, toy food and dress-up capes. Scattered about the ballroom of a motel in northeast Washington, D.C., and captured in a Washington Post column by Petula Dvorak, these hallmarks of child’s play are not merely a sign of productive imaginations — they’re evidence of a larger child and family poverty crisis that must end in our affluent nation.
Twenty minutes outside the city’s downtown, a stretch of budget motels along a major highway serve as overflow shelters for homeless families in the nation’s capital. They have strict rules about where children are seen and heard. Signs dotting the hallways announce “No Playing on the Hotel Premises” and children are forbidden from gathering in common spaces. The Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, a local nonprofit, reserves event spaces to carve out areas where children can be children. However, the lack of space and high cost of reserving ballrooms and conference halls means pop-up playtimes are much too limited.
Away from the hustle and bustle of Capitol Hill where big deals are made and bills become laws, the motels — and the 1,000 homeless children within them — are largely out of sight and out of mind. Other shelters are similarly isolated. Until it closed in October 2018, the city’s largest family shelter was D.C. General, an abandoned public hospital whose neighboring buildings included a jail and a morgue. Out of direct view and tucked into the nooks and crannies of a dense, bustling city, it is too easy to overlook out-of-sight homeless children.
Until tragedy strikes.
Eight-year-old Relisha Rudd was abducted from the D.C. General homeless shelter in March 2014. Relisha loved art and baby dolls and would exuberantly spell V-I-C-T-O-R-Y on her school’s cheer team. For months, Relisha’s disappearance dominated the news cycle and brought the glare of national attention to D.C. General. City officials, pundits, locals and anonymous online commenters heaped blame on Relisha’s family, her teachers and her social workers. But assigning blame did nothing to bring Relisha home. Five years have passed and Relisha is still missing.
Why do we fail to see our poor children until their faces stare at us from a Missing Child poster? Why do we blame parents rather than blame our broken, unjust system that fails to provide affordable housing for families? Thousands of Relishas live everywhere among us, without safe places to live and grow up. They are homeless because housing is too expensive and their parents’ jobs pay too little, unaccounted for because affordable quality child care is out of reach, finding pockets of playtime in motel ballrooms because play is otherwise forbidden, hurting because poverty hurts.
It’s time to stop assigning blame and start taking action. Next week the Children’s Defense Fund will release a new edition of our report “Ending Child Poverty Now” with an urgent call to action. We must make poor children’s struggles visible to our political leaders and policymakers at all levels of government and in every state and community. We must lift up child poverty solutions that work including a higher minimum wage, housing assistance vouchers for struggling parents, transitional jobs programs and child care assistance. We must keep children front and center, invisible no longer.
Marian Wright Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund.