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Growing number of D.C. parents under 24 are seeking shelter, report finds

By Teresa Tomassoni,

Throughout the sleepless night she spent in her car in September, Miracle Johnson, 21, prayed for patience, protection and a miracle.

“When I feel so bad, I just look at my name and most of the time that helps me,” she said.

For nearly six months, Johnson, the mother of a 5-year-old son, said she daily called the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, dreading the response she heard too many times from the District’s central office for families seeking emergency shelter: “We don’t have any spaces.”

According to a study of homeless youths in the District that will be released Monday by the D.C. Alliance of Youth Advocates (DCAYA), a growing number of parents younger than 24 are seeking shelter. The group surveyed nearly 500 people ages 12 to 24 who were living in emergency shelters, on the street or in other unstable housing arrangements. About half had children — and most had custody of them.

Most of the respondents were driven from their parents’ households for economic reasons, said Daniel Brannen, executive director of Covenant House Washington, a youth shelter in Southeast Washington that participated in the study. About four of every five said they left because of eviction or because their homes had become too crowded with multiple families in one house.

More youths have been expected to “bring to the table, not just take from it,” said Dan Davis, director of outreach at Sasha Bruce Youthwork in Southeast Washington, which also surveyed young people for the report. If they can’t contribute, youths are sometimes asked to leave, Davis said.

A lack of education, particularly among young parents who haven’t completed high school, and high youth unemployment rates have exacerbated the problem, the report says.

Recognizing the growing need, the city added 56 apartments this year for young families, said Margaret Riden, who led the study and is a senior policy analyst at DCAYA. But activists say more needs to be done.

More than 300 homeless youths were counted during one night of the survey in March — and that number is probably low.

Advocates say young people try to avoid being identified as homeless by officials who might place them into the child welfare system. They also fear that their peers might look down on them. They might dress nicely, Davis said, “but they might be wearing the same outfit all week.”

Being homeless carries such a stigma, Riden said, that the survey did not ask youths directly whether they are homeless. Johnson said she always thought that the “real” homeless people were the ones slumped across a park bench. So the survey asked such questions as where the youths had spent the previous night and “Could you sleep there for the next 14 days without being asked to leave?”

Riden said most homeless youths avoid shelters, particularly adult ones, because they think they are unsafe. Instead, young people often “couch surf,” crashing at friends’ houses, as Johnson did for months after leaving her mother’s home in Southeast in April with Jatavion, her son.

Even if homeless youths wanted to stay in shelters, the city has only 82 emergency youth shelter beds, according to DCAYA. And young parents such as Johnson cannot always get into places such as D.C. General, one of the city’s main emergency shelters for families, even when beds are available.

From April to mid-October — around the time that Johnson was searching for shelter — the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center did not place a single family at D.C. General, which had available units, said Marta Beresin, a staff attorney for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. Department of Human Services officials said they were reserving the space to ensure they would have openings during cold spells, when they are legally obligated to shelter people.

Under pressure from advocates and the D.C. Council, the department began accepting families in mid-October. But the lengthy delay hurt families in need of shelter, Beresin said.

“By taking the stance it did for over 5 months, the District has really failed our youngest and most vulnerable citizens,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I think there are a lot of families out there who have suffered.”

A week after sleeping in her car this fall, Johnson heard about Covenant House and called — crying. It was the first place that didn’t turn her down.

“Calm down, Miracle; you’re going to be okay,” the woman on the other end told her.

“We have a bed available.”

She is now living in a one-bedroom apartment at Covenant House with Jatavion, her smiling kindergartner, and another young parent and her child.

Not knowing where her son would sleep each night was the hardest part of having nowhere to go. “My son asked me so many days — ‘Where we going?’ — and that hurt so much,” said Johnson, an aspiring chef who attends a job-training program daily.

Almost three months later, Johnson has set her sights on her next move up. “I’m just praying before Christmas I should be in my own apartment.”

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