Urban Wire Reimagining life for Relisha Rudd
Sarah Gillespie, Mary K. Cunningham, Lionel Foster
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Last year, an eight-year-old girl went missing from Washington, DC’s largest homeless shelter.

Relisha Rudd was last seen on March 1, 2014. Since then, there have been prayer vigils, city council hearings, an investigation of the multiple city services that came into contact with her family, and a plan from the mayor to close the troubled facility where she lived. Even seven months into the investigation, still ongoing, volunteers came from as far as Maine to conduct their own searches, separate and apart from the police.

People paid attention, no doubt, because of Relisha’s age and vulnerability and what sounded like monstrous conditions at DC General. But there might have been another factor. In a city where more than half of renters are cost burdened, thousands could be asking themselves what could happen if they were to fall behind.

With homelessness in DC still at crisis levels, some wonder how many “other Relishas” there may be. So one year later, it’s worth remembering Relisha Rudd and imagining what types of supports might make a difference for kids and families in similar situations.


Key events

Alternative scenario


Relisha Rudd is born

Shortly afterward, her family moves into an apartment complex in a troubled neighborhood.

Relisha Rudd is born

Shortly afterward, her family moves into an apartment complex in a troubled neighborhood.


First report to child welfare

There are allegations that the children have inadequate food and supervision.

Five years of housing instability begin

Even with a housing subsidy, five different landlords file cases for lease violations.

First report to child welfare

There are allegations that the children have inadequate food and supervision.

Family referred to supportive housing

After their first eviction, the family is assessed and found eligible for supportive housing.



Integrated service plan

A lead case manager coordinates the family’s case plans among multiple human service agencies—ensuring constant contact with whole family.


Second report to child welfare

There are allegations that the children suffer from medical and environmental neglect.

Response to family needs

Service providers have real-time access to family information—they are able to respond to needs, such as medical issues and school absenteeism.


Eviction notice

For a breach of tenant contract, Relisha Rudd’s family’s landlord files an eviction notice.

Housing First

Even in months when they cannot pay rent or there are mental health concerns, the family remains housed.


Three months in motel

Relisha Rudd’s mother, Shamika Young, moves Relisha and her three brothers to a motel off Bladensburg Road for three months.


Family enters a shelter and will stay for the next 18 months



Third report to child welfare

There are allegations that the children suffer from inadequate supervision, injury, and verbal abuse.



Relisha reported missing

DC police launch a missing-person investigation, after social workers and school officials are unable to account for Relisha's whereabouts.

Family remains together

Seven years of housing stability give the family time to work through barriers to employment, health issues, or any other threats to stability.

Key events

The timeline above marks some of the pivotal points in Relisha’s life. It’s a story of numerous crises, among them multiple reports to child welfare, the first when she was two years old; eviction; and a year and a half in a shelter.

A common theme throughout is lack of stable housing. This, combined with the other problems Relisha and her family faced, would have made them ideal candidates for supportive housing.

How supportive housing might have helped

Supportive housing is designed for individuals and families with the most complex challenges: those who are stuck in the revolving door of homeless shelters and crisis services.

In the case of Relisha Rudd’s family, these crisis services included help with child welfare, mental health, and substance abuse issues. Supportive housing pays the rent and provides additional assistance that can keep families in their homes. It offers safe, permanent, subsidized housing and services that are designed to end the trauma families experience during years of involvement with multiple systems and service plans.

The most promising evidence from supportive housing evaluations shows increased housing stability. Supportive housing can immediately stabilize a family experiencing homelessness, providing a permanent home even during financial and other crises. A lead case manager then takes on the responsibility of coordinating the family’s interactions with multiple service systems, instead of expecting the family to navigate them alone.

In Relisha’s case, her family was engaged with four human service agencies in just the few months before her disappearance. Her family also had a housing subsidy, but lost it after multiple evictions. Under supportive housing, case managers bring together different social services to address challenges before they become crises that can jeopardize a family’s stability.

In the timeline, we’ve marked periods when support like this might have made a difference.

Keeping kids safe

While DC is striving to provide the support homeless families need, the supply still fails to keep up with the demand. From 2013 to 2014, the number of homeless families in DC grew 25 percent, while the stock of permanent supportive housing units increased only 3 percent.

To begin to address this gap, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s recently released FY2016 budget would provide a $1.3 million boost to provide 110 additional units of permanent supportive housing for families.

It’s not yet clear whether supportive housing can decrease family involvement with child welfare agencies, but initial evidence from a small pilot program suggests it may. And the Urban Institute is working to broaden the evidence base with a study currently underway in five sites.

What happened to Relisha Rudd is tragic and unthinkable. So let’s learn from it. Understanding her family’s housing situation and the experiences of other families that need intensive support could help us change the trajectory for kids around the country.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Greater DC
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
Cities Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV