Jamila Larson has worked side-by-side with the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates to gather support and draft local legislation that will prevent and protect vulnerable youth from sexual exploitation.
Join Jamila and DCAYA at the 10 Year Anniversary and meet the inspiring executive director who is changing the law to better the lives of DC youth. More about the DCAYA 10 Year Anniversary.
The following interview has been edited for length.
Why did you start Homeless Children’s Playtime Project?
When I was working for the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) in the mid 90’s, the CCNV shelter was only a block away from my office. I heard in the newspaper that a child discovered a woman’s dead body in the bathroom, where she had died of whooping cough. So I figured the least I can do is walk over on my lunch break and check things out and see what we can do at CDF. I took a walk there thinking I’d head up a toy drive for the holidays. So I visited and really wasn’t prepared for what I saw: Rows of metal bunk beds, sheets for doors, children languishing in the hallways half dressed, not a single toy, just a smoky TV lounge for adults. I asked the woman giving me the tour if anyone ever donated any toys; she said, “Yeah, from time to time, but we keep them locked in a closet so the kids don’t make a mess.” That’s when I realized that it really wasn’t going to do enough just to donate toys, that we actually needed to donate ourselves and advocate for child-friendly spaces in family shelters.
At that point, the demographics of homelessness were shifting more towards families and away from single men. Since then it’s just been growing, and now for the first time in history, families with children make up the majority of homeless people in DC. It’s really been shocking as housing prices have skyrocketed over the past decade and families have really been squeezed out of the housing market.
So, we started setting up playrooms in shelters and staffing them with dedicated volunteers that we trained, trying to accommodate requests from other shelters the best we could. Now we serve about 600 children a year at five different shelters through thirteen weekly programs. The social justice component is very important to our mission and we try to educate our volunteers and empower our parents to speak out every year about the city’s budget to try to make a difference in expanding affordable housing opportunities for families. (We want to work ourselves out of business.)
What do you see in the kids you work with?
I was at DC General last night and it always impacts me to go there because it’s kind of like ground zero for family homelessness in DC. I see so many precious children with boundless energy and boundless potential stuck in a situation beyond their control. One of the young people that I saw last night was the brother of the sex trafficking victim (see story below) and he has been in the shelter for about two years now. He’s 17, he’s a senior in high school this year and he just looks beaten down. He’s just been there for a really long time, he’s been through a lot in his life, and especially these last two years. He was helping his mom look for his sister when the police wouldn’t. I remember him when he was in elementary school, when virtually every young child has so much joy and so much hope for the future. When you ask any kid in elementary school what they want to be when they grow up, they are in touch with their boundless potential. To see their worlds become more defined as they become older, confined by the poor quality of their schools, by expectations of society, lack of opportunity, by the compounding years of trauma that they’ve had to go through; it really wears all but the most hearty souls down and you can really see it in their faces.
How did you begin working closely with DCAYA?
We have been members for a number of years, but it wasn’t until the incident a year ago when one of our teens went missing, that I really realized I needed to reach out to DCAYA. They had far more expertise than I did in terms of the legislative issues that affect youth.
[Background: A 14-year-old girl Jamila knew from Homeless Children’s Playtime Project went missing from DC General. She was eventually found, sex trafficked out to LA. For full details, read Jamila’s blog “Missing: The Will to Find & Protect Our Missing Youth.”]
I think I’m fairly used to encountering road blocks in the field, but this was more devastating than any I had ever encountered. The concept of a child in our nation’s capital going missing and being in danger and not having her hometown look for her was incredibly jarring and really hard to swallow. This was a child I knew from the first grade. The fact that she was in the worst situation you could possibly imagine and literally, her hometown didn’t care because they weren’t looking for her; the silence was scary to me. Then, when we finally went up the chain of command and met with [authorities], that was even more upsetting because I felt so disrespected and dismissed, almost like I was on trial. Even worse was the way they spoke about the child and her family. I then understood another layer of how these systems interact with these vulnerable children and families…the reception that they get, the attitude, the judgment was really shocking. I felt like I was up against this machine and it felt impenetrable. It felt like a really lonely battle.
We were fortunate to find this child and bring her home, but we don’t just want to care about one kid and check that box. Once we discover an injustice that disproportionately affects our children, we want to do what we can to speak out to make sure that changes are made and lessons are learned from the neglectful way that this case was handled.
So the more you dig, the more you see, and it’s really ugly and scary and it’s been an issue that’s grabbed me and I felt quickly in over my head. Then I met with Maggie (the executive director of DCAYA) to have coffee and talk about this case and ask her for help. Venting about the case to Maggie was just so refreshing because you never know when you have coffee with someone what would come of it. Maggie was able to hook me up with Katie (a policy analyst at DCAYA) who really has the policy expertise and strategy to know how to build coalitions and how to tackle something like this. Katie started setting up meetings with legislative folks in the Wilson Building and wanted me to tell my story.
What was so amazing was the Council folks like Mary Cheh and others responded to our call for help and agreed with us that changes needed to be made to the law. Now we’re just hammering out the details to the “The Prevention of Minors Sex Trafficking” legislation. It’s just the most humbling experience to start with one of the most troubling and worst cases that I’ve experienced in my 18 years as a social worker and then actually connect with the people who can help change the laws to prevent other children from being lost. It is just extraordinary. I can’t imagine a more powerful ending to the story, to change the law on behalf of not just one, but hundreds of children every year in our city who go missing.
A special thank you to Jamila Larson for being a part of the 10 Year Anniversary Celebration. Your passion and commitment to the youth of DC is an inspiring example of true advocacy. Join Jamila and DCAYA on September 26th and help homeless youth fulfill their bright futures.