Homelessness: The Family Portrait

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 16, 2009

Robert Polight leaned over an electric pot in a corner of Room 27 at the Breezeway Motel, stirring the sauce for his family's favorite dinner: spaghetti. He strained the noodles in the room's cramped bathroom sink.

His wife, Joshalyn James, had just finished slicing sausage on the coffee table and was busy cleaning up after him. Son Jake, 6, quietly played a video game, and daughter Haira,12, giggled on the phone.

Dinnertime, even under these circumstances, has given the family a sense of stability since it became homeless.

Fairfax County pays $65 a night for the family to stay at the 1950s-era motel in Fairfax City while it waits for space to open in a county shelter. The family was evicted from a rented townhouse in Spotsylvania after Polight lost his warehouse job and he and James couldn't make ends meet on her salary as a medical assistant.

After a month at a relative's house, two nights in the couple's six-year-old Toyota and three nights in an emergency shelter, the family has tried to make a home in the drafty motel room, with its chipped, faded furniture and peeling paint. The family's belongings, packed in garbage bags, sit in a corner.

It's a long fall from the comfortable life the family had when Polight and James were making about $60,000 a year.

"But we're together," said Polight, 44. "We're together, and all of this moving around, stuff in storage and all, won't be for long . . . we hope. All of this situation makes you see how close you can be to everything -- house, kids' toys, clothes -- being gone."

For nearly a generation, the face of homelessness in America has been that of a man or woman living on the street and panhandling for loose change. But with the foreclosure crisis, stagnant economy and rising unemployment, advocates for the homeless said they are seeing more two-parent families seeking shelter.

Many of the newly homeless are renters whose landlords were foreclosed on, members of families in which a parent lost a job or low-wage workers who were living on the edge even before losing their jobs.

Experts who study homelessness and poverty said the increase in homeless families illustrates how severely the economic crisis is affecting middle- and working-class households and how the worsening economy is pushing more people toward poverty.

A study to be released tomorrow by the Richmond-based research groups Commonwealth Institute and Voices for Virginia's Children concludes that if the national unemployment rate reaches 9 percent by the fall, as many as 218,000 Virginians might drop below the poverty line, including 73,000 children. A similar analysis by the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute estimated that Maryland could see as many as 189,000 people slip below the poverty line.

Statistics on the total number of homeless people in the Washington region won't be available until the spring, but shelters in Prince William, Arlington and Fairfax counties have reported increases in the number of two-parent families. Advocates in Prince George's County and officials in Montgomery County report more homeless families but not a marked increase in homeless two-parent households.

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