Despite several phone calls, she came up empty. Coe was shocked to learn that many of the local shelters that cater to families were full, including Good Shepherd Alliance, where Coe was once director of social services.
“I don’t know why nobody will take this girl in,” Coe said. “The baby still had a hospital bracelet on her wrist.”
In a region with seven of the 10 most affluent counties in the country, family homelessness is on the rise — straining services, filling shelters and forcing parents and their children to sleep in cars, parks, and bus and train stations. One mother recently bought $14 bus tickets to and from New York so she and her 2-year-old son would have a safe place to sleep — on the bus.
As cold weather descends on the region, the need will become increasingly acute, advocates say. That will be especially true in the District, where continued fallout from the recession and lack of affordable housing has contributed to an 18 percent increase in family homelessness this year over last.
The city has recently come under fire for turning away families seeking help as 118 overflow beds that were added last winter at D.C. General — the city’s main family homeless shelter — sit empty. A few places have recently opened up, but 500 families — some of whom are living with relatives or friends — are on a waiting list for housing.
“We’re hoping we can keep pace with those in the more dire situations,” said David A. Berns, director of the city’s Department of Human Services.
Berns said the city is trying to keep the overflow beds open for hypothermia season, which begins Nov. 1. The city is mandated by law to shelter its residents if the temperature falls below freezing. The agency does not have the money to operate the extra beds, Berns said.
D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who has been critical of the agency’s handling of the crisis, wonders why families are being denied help when the District has a $140 million budget surplus.
“Never did I imagine that beds would be kept vacant,” Graham said. “It’s very upsetting.”
Family homelessness around the Washington region has increased 23 percent since the recession began — though the total number of homeless people stayed fairly steady at around 11,800, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which did its annual “point-in-time” survey of the homeless in January. This included some 3,388 homeless children, the study showed.
“These families are the most desperate because they have young children and have nowhere to go,” said Nassim Moshiree, a lawyer for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.