Inspectors from the Department of Investigation were similarly dismayed after surveying 25 cluster site and city shelters last year. Conditions were “bluntly Dickensian,” declared DOI Commissioner Mark G. Peters when the report came out in March. They found infestations of rats, mice and roaches. Among other delights investigators observed, “a dead rat in a cluster apartment where four children lived, the decaying smell of which permeated the hallways.”
In addition to varied species of vermin, investigators discovered locked exits and blocked passageways that could obstruct escape in emergencies. In one city-run shelter, a rusted-out staircase was unusable, giving 140 residents only one way out of the building; when DOI called on the FDNY to inspect the site, they deemed the situation so dangerous they wanted to evacuate the building. Instead they made do with posting fire guards to regulate traffic in case of a fire.
They also found exposed electrical wiring and nonworking fire alarms, water damage and mold. One woman told investigators her electricity was often shut off for days at a time.
Although infractions were also found in non-profit shelters, the worst offenders were cluster site shelters (though city run shelters also had dangerous and unsanitary conditions). For the public service of taking in homeless families with vermin-infested apartments, the city paid landlords an average of $2,451 per month, according to the report (some are paid over $3,000). The market rate for regular apartments in these neighborhoods range from $528 to $1,200 a month.
(Let me emphasize here that these are NYC shelters. But Relisha’s shelter in Washington DC was very much the same. I read about one couple there that was interviewed by the Washington Post, who stayed up all night working in shifts, to keep the roaches off their sleeping baby son. That detail has stuck in my head ever since.) If a family was living in their own home with vermin everywhere and exposed wires like as described in the article, chances their kids would get taken into foster care because of “unsafe living conditions.”
Getting back to Relisha: How many other little Relishas are running around out there? God only knows what that Mr. Tatum was doing to her when no one was watching. But he took her out of that horrible environment and to a place that was quiet and clean and not overcrowded. He bought her things, made her feel special, when quite possibly no one had ever made her feel special in her entire life. That’s often how it starts, sexual abuse I mean. Relisha might have been willing to do literally anything, just to maintain that sense that she was his special little girl. (Assuming he did abuse her, a theory of which I admit is without proof at this point, but is, let’s face it, more likely than not.)
I actually talked about this with friends. Now, Relisha’s mom was, at minimum, an idiot, who had a previous history with child protective services for neglecting her kids. She was, at least, partially responsible for whatever it was that happened to her daughter. But let’s take me instead. Suppose my children and I were living in conditions like the ones in Relisha’s shelter (which I describe in her casefile as “filthy, chaotic, crime-ridden, infested with vermin and had no playground” and frankly all of that doesn’t even begin to portray how awful it was there) and there was no way of getting out any time soon. My choices are:
- Keep Relisha in the shelter with me, even though the environment is terrible and bugs are everywhere etc. and the staff bribe and/or coerce sexual services out of the residents and I do not have the ability to provide a safe haven for her.
- Let the janitor guy take Relisha to his nice clean quiet house to stay over for awhile, where at least she won’t have to deal with rats or chaos and what have you, and might be able to play outside and do stuff children are supposed to be able to do. Take into account the fact that I know the janitor is creepy and odds are he’s a pedophile.
Either option is bad. Neither is good for Relisha; both leave her open to being mistreated by other adults. And no mother should have to choose between the creepy janitor and the fourth-world conditions under which they were living.
Look…I don’t know where I’m going there…it’s just that this kind of thing really makes me sad and angry. The more so because, there but for the grace of God go I. I’ve said it before: you guys don’t know me, not really. Online I sound a lot higher functioning than I really am. In real life I am significantly impacted by my autism and mental illness and need help on a regular basis. If I didn’t have a boyfriend and a family, one that was willing and able to support me, I could end up homeless too.
Capitalist, socialist, conservative, liberal, Republican, Democrat, whatever your beliefs social, economic and political, no one should want this happening to any family. Certainly not in the richest country in the world.