Shelter Stay Tests a Newly Needy Va. Family

Ron Vazquez once lived in a three-bedroom townhouse in Prince William County with his wife and three children. Now, they are homeless. They are one of an increasing number of area middle-class families whose lives have been changed by the recession.
By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Ron Vazquez was not a drunk. Not a drug addict. Not mentally ill.

For weeks, he repeated those phrases to himself and to anyone else who would listen. He and his wife used to fight over walk-in closet space and which BMW to buy. Yolanda Vazquez is the quintessential PTA mom -- organized and energetic. Ron's the classic Little League coach -- involved and enthusiastic. They were not drunks. Not drug addicts. Not mentally ill.

They were not homeless. Except that now, they are.

"My wife told me today, 'Look in the mirror. That's the face of homelessness,' " Ron said. The mirror was at the Woodbridge shelter where he, his wife and their three children have lived since August. They face a Wednesday deadline to move out, destination unclear.

This is the family's second shelter. Ron, 48, walked out of the first one, angry. "I was like, 'I don't want to be here. I'm not homeless. I'm just an unemployed engineer,' " said Ron, who made $85,000 a year at a firm in the defense industry. "That was my mind-set.

"But" -- he paused for a long time and lowered his voice -- "I'm homeless."

The financial crisis nudged many middle-class families a few rungs down the social ladder; it shoved some, like the Vazquezes, to depths they had never imagined. At the shelter, every space is shared: the television room, the playground, the dining room that resembles a school cafeteria. To hold hands in the bedroom where the five members of the family sleep, Yolanda and Ron must reach across the gap between their beds.

During any other time, the Vazquez family's experience might seem an extreme example. But area shelters report that since the recession started, they've seen schoolteachers, computer technicians and interior designers walk through their doors.

"We've had a couple people who were lawyers and mortgage brokers," said Vickie Koch, executive director of the Good Shepherd Alliance shelter in Loudoun County. "It has surprised me the number of people with high degrees who have had to resort to a shelter."

"The recession is affecting people beyond foreclosures," said Gayle Sanders, executive director at the Hilda M. Barg Homeless Prevention Center, where the Vazquez family ended up. "We had never seen a Prince William schoolteacher before. You're seeing people you don't expect to see."

It was hard enough for the Vazquezes to give up their three-bedroom townhouse in Dumfries for five twin beds in a single room. Now they also have to figure out what that move says about who they are.

"Dad, I don't want to be known as 'the shelter child,' " Ron's 14-year-old son, Matthew, told him as they entered the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History one recent Sunday.

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