The Homeless Children’s Playtime Project (Playtime) partners with homeless shelters and other organizations in Washington, DC and Prince George’s County, MD to create safe and fun play spaces for children where they live. Playtime nurtures healthy child development through play and connects families with critical support supplies and services in the community to meet their concrete needs. In 2020, Playtime served 200  children and youth, distributing 812 Playtime to Go kits and special activity supplies, 133  play costumes, 161  personalized holiday gifts, 116 back-to-school supplies, and, $7,470 in emergency gift cards for families. Many Hands Board member Robin Berkley spoke recently with founder and Executive Director Jamila Larson about Playtime’s work and how it has evolved since the beginning of the pandemic.

How did the Many Hands grant help Playtime fulfill its mission of developing resilience in children experiencing homelessness by providing access to transformative play experiences, especially during COVID?

If the global pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the importance of being nimble and keeping our priorities straight. The landscape of family homelessness is shifting before our very eyes. The pandemic has changed where homeless families are hidden, as well as the city’s approach to homeless services. Fewer families are in shelters, and more families are temporarily placed in apartments they cannot afford without temporary vouchers. The Rapid Rehousing program has grown by 1,200 households since the pandemic. As evictions resume, the expectation is shelters will swell again next year.

Yet most families who are considered homeless have always lived out of sight, doubled up with family or friends in crowded and often unsafe conditions. Therefore, as Playtime expands, we need to be flexible. We need to be focused. We need to follow the children as we always have. We must follow them beyond shelters into the community. ​General operating funds allowed us to pilot our first ​daily summer program at a community-based setting next to a shelter ​in 2021, and we will start a program at our first school-based setting in January.

The general operating funds we received from Many Hands help us plan strategically and shift suddenly when we need to. For example, right now, we are testing the impact of multiple new models, such as play kits delivered to multiple settings, as well as our new “Pop-up” Family Playtimes. The impact data that we’re gathering​ for our traditional model and these new endeavors will help us determine the models ​that serve our goal of increasing children’s access to play in the year ahead.

How does Playtime advocate for the children in its programs, and why is advocacy important in improving outcomes for homeless families?

Without advocacy, there would be no Playtime. There would be no playrooms. There would be no playground at the former DC General shelter for the 600 children who lived there. Our commitment to the families we serve requires an eye towards social justice. It requires us not just to serve and meet immediate needs, but to use our expertise to help change the system that produces so many homeless children in the richest nation on earth. As direct service providers, we believe we have an ethical responsibility to work our way out of business. ​

Advocacy makes it possible to expand our scope beyond the children in our shelter playrooms to include the “hidden homeless,” children across the city we will never meet. For example, when youth from our program went missing due to child sex trafficking, we met with the police and city council leaders to help strengthen policy and practice to prevent and intervene ​and better protect ​the vulnerable children we serve.

With DC Action for Children, Playtime created the Youth Economic Justice & Housing Coalition​, which brings together advocates for children in families and advocates for unaccompanied homeless youth, which are often the same kids at different ends of the continuum. Together, we are asking for more data-driven policies, practices, and coordination of services to prevent and end homelessness for all children, youth, and families in the District.

How has the COVID pandemic changed the needs of Playtime families? How can donors support Playtime most effectively during this time?

The COVID pandemic (and related eviction moratorium) has meant fewer families coming into shelters, ​though not fewer families needing help, leading us to do more outreach beyond our shelters into schools, housing programs, and neighboring Prince George’s County. For example, we just learned there are 60 children and their families living in a hotel in Prince George’s County, so we are planning a pop-up Family Holiday party with activities parents and children can do together, play kits, diapers and other resources to give away. ​Groups of volunteers are able to purchase and assemble the components of our play kits so we can keep the homeless family intake center stocked, as well as distribute monthly to all of the children in our programs. ​Play kits are also a great way for us to reach new audiences of families experiencing housing insecurity ​at pop-up events. The carefully selected toys in our play kits keep children playing, learning, and healing in the confines of their rooms. They contain specific books, fidget toys, imaginative toys, expressive toys, and snacks, all customized to developmental level. We have the pandemic to thank for the growth of our play kit program​; it is becoming an integral component of our model!

Playtime went through the Many Hands grant process several times. Why did the organization continue to apply, and what makes the Many Hands grant process a unique opportunity for an organization like Playtime?

We felt Many Hands was a great fit for Playtime because our model touches on virtually every ​application category. Maybe we didn’t fit neatly into any one box, so it took us several tries. We love the “giving circle” model and have had many encouraging conversations with members along the way who encouraged us not to give up and to keep trying. We are so grateful to Many Hands for selecting us this year!