Homelessness: The Family Portrait
Across Region, Economy Pulls Rug From Under More and More 2-Parent Households

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.

The increases are most pronounced in those counties hit hardest by the housing crisis. In Prince William, officials said, 26 percent of 290 families that had stayed in two county shelters since July 1 were headed by two parents. In fiscal 2008, two-parent households accounted for 17 percent of about 384 families that stayed in those shelters.

"They are a regular part of the types of families we are seeing now," said Cheri Villa, executive director of Serve, a Manassas area shelter and social services agency. She said the agency has seen more "intact" families halfway through this fiscal year than it did last year. That doesn't include families that the agency turns away when the shelter is out of beds, she said.

"We could be talking about many, many more," she said.

In Fairfax, shelters are reporting slightly higher numbers of two-parent families than in previous years. Nearly 30 percent of the 167 families that have stayed in county shelters since July 1 were headed by two parents, up from about 20 percent in previous years.

"It's really all economic problems," said Caroline Jones, director of client services at Doorways for Women and Children in Arlington, which reported a threefold increase in such families. "One of the parents loses a job, the family can't afford the rent, they don't have family they can rely on and they are evicted."

Similar increases are being reported across the country.

Many families are in precarious situations for the first time and find it difficult to make the adjustment. Polight and James, 31, married 12 years, said it took a few weeks for them to accept that they had lost nearly everything. They had moved to Northern Virginia from Brooklyn, N.Y., because of the schools. Their daughter had been mugged in her New York school last year, and they wanted a safer environment.

They were expecting things to be the way they were when the family lived in Loudoun for four years earlier in the decade. Then they made a little more than $60,000 between them and rented a modest townhouse in Ashburn. Polight had a steady job at Home Depot, and he and James were able to afford two used cars so they could get to work and take care of family obligations without problems.

But like many other working-class couples, they faced difficult choices. In 2006, the household income was rising, and they were close to making too much money to qualify for child-care assistance. They calculated the extra cost of child care -- $360 a week for two children -- and concluded that it was an expense they couldn't afford.

"Another rent payment," Polight said, shaking his head.

So the native New Yorkers moved back home, knowing that relatives could help with child care and that jobs might actually pay more than in Virginia. But then they decided that New York was not a good environment for their daughter, and they had to choose again: free child care or better schools? They chose the latter.

"Each time, we thought we were doing the right thing for our family," James said. "It's a juggle, though, and I guess what we found when we came back is that things are different now. Jobs haven't been here. We thought we could put it together the way we always have."

The shock came after they were evicted from their Spotsylvania home and had pawned the video games, the MP3 players, the stereo and a television.

"I think it took me two weeks just to get out of bed," James said. "I just . . . I wasn't myself because I'm a hard worker and I like to work, but I just couldn't accept this was happening.

"The thing is, we had it mapped out," said James, who was working as a medical assistant in Spotsylvania until October, when her contract ran out. As the family's finances grew worse, she didn't renew the contract. Instead, she and Polight decided to move to Fairfax, thinking that it would be easier to find work there. They had only one car now, and staying in the Spotsylvania area didn't seem practical when Polight was looking for work, too.

Even as Polight and James adjust to their transient life, circumstances are looking up. After submitting dozens of applications, Polight is scheduled to start a $10-an-hour job as a clerk in Tysons Corner; James is close to starting work in a pediatrics office for $15 an hour. But a permanent home doesn't seem to be in their immediate future.

Polight and James often second-guess their decision to leave Virginia in the first place. They have tried to keep things as normal as possible for the children -- to keep them focused on school and not on their situation -- but it's difficult. They have changed rooms twice, and twice the heat in their room has gone out. They eat with plastic forks from McDonald's.

So they make concessions. Jake, for example, had a bad day at school and was upset, so James let him play a video game, which normally isn't allowed on a school night. And for his birthday, the family came up with $50 to buy a used PlayStation from a pawnshop.

"You don't want to spoil him, but at the same time, he's been through a lot. . . . We all have," she said. "But all of us need to remember we're a family and we will do what we need to get through this."

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