First day of school for students at homeless shelter is mix of excitement, shame

Petula Dvorak
Columnist August 26, 2013

She was eager to start high school Monday. First day of freshman year.

Her uniform’s white shirt was pressed, her neon school supplies were ready to go and her hair had been freshly braided.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

The 13-year-old from Southeast Washington woke up extra early this year. The bus ride from the D.C. General homeless shelter to the high school in her old neighborhood was a long one.

“It’s back in Anacostia, back where we used to live,” the new freshman told me.

Her father waited for the bus with her.

“We’re trying to get out,” he said. “But the way things are now, it’s hard to get out, hard to find something we can afford.”

We talked while he waited with his kids for their Metro bus. He asked me not to use his name or the names of his 13- and 16-year-old kids. They really don’t want all their friends to know what has happened to their family.

Some of the 476 kids sleeping at the shelter this summer have been there for a while, and the older ones are getting pretty good at hiding their situation from friends.

When school starts, the families and schools have to figure out how to keep the kids who lost their homes from also losing ground in the classroom. And from losing face.

Most decide to stay in their old schools, taking city buses and the Metro to almost 60 different schools. Walking from the bus doesn’t raise a red flag with other kids. And the city gets a federal subsidy to help fund those commutes.

But sometimes it’s too hard to keep up the commute. Or the kids just want to get away from their neighborhood, their school or their past, and they transfer into one of the Capitol Hill schools closer to the shelter.

The problem is, there’s usually no hiding where you live when you do that.

The school bus drives right up to the shelter’s front doors, past the sign that directs visitors to the kids’ new neighbors — the jail, the morgue, the Southeast Sexually Transmitted Diseases Clinic (turn right), the Detox Center (also right), the jail’s video visitation center (turn left).

The current population of kids — 476 in last week’s count — is down from a peak of about 600 this winter.

Don’t get all excited that the homeless population is shrinking, though.

This doesn’t mean that 124 kids have families that got back on their feet, found nice apartments and are all doing well.

“About six to eight families a month just move out on their own; that’s just natural attrition,” said David A. Berns, director of the D.C. Department of Human Services. Each month, an additional 40 families get apartments through a program known as Rapid Re-Housing.

For some families, this program is a lifeline. It gets them into an apartment quickly and provides a huge subsidy on rent for a short time — four months to a year — based on income.

And because it costs about $50,000 a year to keep a family in the shelter, the several thousand spent to get a family into an apartment and back on its feet is a bargain.

But the program has been so successful that there is a waiting list of about 200 families that qualify for apartments but don’t yet have them. Meanwhile, the program can’t take any more applicants.

Another dead end.

One 56-year-old grandmother has been trying to find housing on her own.

“Every time I apply for something,” she told me, “I’m paying a $50 application fee. Then I never hear back from them.”

The woman, who used to be a cook at Bethesda’s Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, receives disability pay and Social Security. That was enough to pay rent on the small apartment she’d shared the past few years with her 26-year-old daughter and 2-year-old granddaughter.

But she was evicted — for the first time in her life — when her landlord lost the building in foreclosure. Now the building sits empty — it will probably become a condominium with stainless-steel appliances soon — and the small family is sleeping on the floor of a friend’s house while they look for an apartment.

That’s the game in the summer for many homeless parents — trying to persuade your friends or family to let you stay with them “just until hypothermia,” when the city is bound by law to house everyone. The shelters start taking families again, and the population at D.C. General crawls back up to 600.

Berns said his office is scrambling to find affordable apartments and get them ready for the Rapid Re-Housing list so that people such as the grandmother won't have to pay those application fees.

But he’s a little like Sisyphus. As soon as he empties the shelter, it fills right back up.

No wonder. Our affordable-housing stock was cut in half in the past decade. And homelessness among families doubled in the past five years.

“It’s not looking tremendously optimistic,” Berns acknowledged. “Our biggest problem and challenge is really the lack of affordable units in the city.”

While they wait for housing, the kids who started the school year while living in a homeless shelter got some help from volunteers.

Donations of new backpacks filled with school supplies were handed out. Cute kitty backpacks. Awesome Iron Man ones. A hairdresser came to the shelter to give the kids free back-to-school styles.

And once they got out past that entrance gate in their new clothes and hairstyles, they were just like all the other kids, the shelter, the jail and the morgue behind them.

Until the bell rings at the end of the day, and it’s back to the place they don’t want to call home.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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