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At Shelter In D.C., Mix Of Holiday Cheer, Hope

By Theola S. Labbe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 31, 2004; Page B01

The children inside a multipurpose room yesterday happily scooped up corn and macaroni and cheese from their paper plates. After lunch, the deejay switched from soul-infused Christmas carols to pop singer Beyonce. The youngsters danced, shaking themselves up and down the same way some people shake salt on a baked potato.

The parents watched from the audience, smiling, laughing, pointing, clapping and cheering on their children in the dance contest. An excited Shawnice Johnson, 9, ran up to her mother, Jennifer, 33, after she had worked up a sweat to "Crazy in Love."

LaToya Williams, from left, Jennifer Johnson and her daughter Wendy, 12, enjoy the antics of children in a dance contest at the D.C. Village shelter. The Department of Human Services sponsored the event for about 60 families. (Photos Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)

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"Mommy, I'm going to win!"

"You do what you do, Shawnice," Johnson, said, hugging her daughter tightly.

For a brief moment yesterday, or maybe even for the whole afternoon, everyone in the room could forget they were at a homeless shelter and the circumstances that had brought them there. The D.C. Department of Human Services sponsored the first-time holiday luncheon yesterday for more than 60 homeless families at D.C. Village in Southwest Washington. It was the agency's latest effort to put on activities that are more personal and reflective of its motto, "Uplifting Lives."

In his trademark bass voice, Rufus G. Mayfield, the agency's top outreach official, told the families that they were not forgotten and were, in fact, integral to the District's economic rebirth.

"If this city is ever going to be great, it will be because we have lifted you up from dependency to self-sufficiency," he said.

Family homelessness has been a growing problem across the country and in the District. In recent years, the city has experienced an increase in the number of applications for family shelter, from 989 requests in 1999 to 3,100 last year. This year, officials said, the number will be about 2,000.

At the same time, the city has reduced the amount spent on homeless services, from $36 million in the 1990 budget to $13 million this fiscal year.

"It's been devastating," said Sczerina Perot, an attorney for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. "We do far less today in the face of an increasing problem than we did 15 years ago, and housing was far more affordable."

Sue A. Marshall, executive director of the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, the nonprofit group that manages public funding of the city's largely privatized homeless services, said the drop reflects a shift in priorities, toward programs that include prevention initiatives and transition housing.

Even with city funding to provide help, homeless families can remain in shelters for several months or longer because of a lack of employment and affordable housing. According to a recent study by the Fannie Mae Foundation and the Urban Institute, the region's home prices are rising faster than its wages, especially for low- and moderate-income workers.

"The situation is just getting more and more challenging," said Patrick Simmons, Fannie Mae's director of housing demography.

Tears sprung to the eyes of Claretta Jones yesterday as she discussed her own obstacles. A single mother of four, she said she had a mental breakdown several years ago from the stress of taking care of her ailing son, Reginald Paige, 15, who has kidney disease. Jones, 33, eventually lost her house and job in North Carolina and sent Reginald and his brother Daniel, 16, to the District to live with their father.

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