WASHINGTON, DC (WUSA9) --- "He's happy. You see he['s] a happy baby. Into everything. Since he started walking, he's just into everything."
DaShawn Brown, 24, laughs as she watches her 1-year-old son, DaMari Dunbar, grab a handful of crayons. In October, 2012, she and her three children entered DC General, an emergency family shelter. On Tuesdays she brings DaMari to the HomelessChildren's Playtime Project located inside the shelter. The non-profit organization carves out time to play and relax for children aged 6 months to 18 years old within various shelters and transitional housing programs.
Playing gets children to express themselves in a healthy manner. A time for fun and exploration instills confidence in the youth. Ultimately, the program helps reduce potential emotional and psychological harm in children going through homelessness.
"Toys can be incredibly healing. You know, when a child has been through a traumatic event, you don't put them on a couch and ask them to talk about their feelings. You give them a dollhouse. You give them crayons and paper," said Jamila Larson, Executive Director and Co-Founder of the Homeless Children's Playtime Project.
"It's important for all children to have playtime. That's the work of a child. Just like it's an elementary-aged student to learn in school and our job to work. It's a child's job to play. And a lot of children that live in shelters are denied that right to play, because there aren't appropriate spaces for them," Larson continued.
DaMari participates in the young children's Playtime program. Within a colorful room inside DC General, DaMari is able to play and enjoy being a kid among his peers.
"Being as though we were homeless, we lost a lot of friends, lost a lot of contacts. So being as though we are in an environment with other kids, that gives him time to interact with other kids," explained Brown. She describes playtime as a time to break away from the seclusion while living at the shelter.
About 220 families live at DC General. Eighty percent of those families are single mother families. One main reason for the climb in homeless families is a lack of access to affordable housing, according to Larson.
"Well right now in DC, the typical homeless person is a parent and a child and that's never been the case before. So we're really experiencing an affordable housing crisis in the city that has very damaging effects on families and communities," said Larson.
Many times, homeless children lose their toys in transition. They're also denied the space, stability, and structure needed for a healthy childhood. The program allows toddlers like DaMari a time to explore toys, books, and games.
"We want to make sure that children know that they can count on playtime, that they can come here twice a week, have access to our beautiful playrooms and toys, and relax and be a child," Larson explained.
More than 150 volunteers help run the weekly programs allowing children and teens one-on-one attention. Meanwhile, parents can recharge their batteries.
"[T]hey get to play with toys. And I guess that gives moms a way just to connect with yourself and get a break during the day time," Brown said.
NOTE:Gannett Foundation has provided a grant to the Homeless Children's Playtime Project.
Produced by: Elizabeth Jia
WUSA9 & WUSA9.com