The long wait for shelter

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 10, 2010; 9:23 AM

Raphael, a 47-year-old native of Puerto Rico, sits at the dining table of his two-bedroom temporary home in the heart of Fairfax, a tinsel-smothered Christmas tree in the corner, and recounts how his family is making its way back from homelessness.

Although homelessness is often rooted in unemployment, poor education or family disfunction, high housing prices and rents are key contributors in affluent communities such as the Washington area. Housing here often requires two incomes, and devoting a heavy share of income to shelter leaves little cash left with which to build a savings account for emergencies.

Even in Fairfax County, one of the richest in the country, there are hundreds of homeless families - 263 counted during a one-day census taken in January. That includes families who live in an emergency or transitional shelter or who are literally on the street.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments has taken the point-in-time counts of the homeless annually for 10 years. In January, the group counted 800 homeless families (including 1,535 children) in the District, 124 families in Montgomery County, 102 in Prince George's, 97 in Prince William, 61 in Arlington, 52 in Alexandria, 39 in Frederick County and 25 in Loudoun. All together, these families accounted for nearly 5,000 people, more than 3,000 of them children.

While there are resources throughout the area that provide emergency shelter to families, Raphael found that getting a roof overhead can take a while.

We agreed not to publish his last name because he worries that his daughter, now in middle school, might suffer if her peers knew that the family spent a weekend last June living in their Jeep. "For a kid, it's very impressive," Raphael says. His wife did not want to talk about the experience at all.

When Raphael lost his job administering a low-income housing development in Puerto Rico in 2009, he decided to try his luck in the States. As an American citizen, the move would be easy. His older children were already living here and urging their parents and youngest sister to join them. They would stay with a daughter already living in Northern Virginia until Raphael found work. "There's more opportunity here," he says. And he thought his bachelor's degree in marketing would help.

But finding work was anything but easy. After staying at their daughter's home for about a year, a problem came up in that household, and the family could no longer stay. Other family members, including a son who was deployed with the U.S. Navy, weren't in a position to help.

In June, Raphael, his wife and their pre-teen daughter sought help at the Patrick Henry Shelter, a 42-bed emergency facility in Falls Church that's restricted to families. They were met with a two- to three-month waiting list. They signed on to the list, but for three nights over the weekend, the family had no choice but to sleep in their car.

"I panicked," Raphael says, recalling the moment when he realized there was no better option. How would he tell his wife and daughter where they were going to spend that night? "That was the worst," he says.

"If you go in the night, you will find a lot of people in the parking lots," Raphael says. The homeless live in their cars anywhere, in the parking lot of a McDonalds, or of a Wal-Mart, he adds.

At the Patrick Henry Shelter, he picked up a flyer for Facets, an independent nonprofit group based in Fairfax that coordinates assistance from volunteers and faith-based groups and helps people find housing, jobs and other necessities. His timing was lucky when he called - the group had an opening in one of the five motel rooms available for emergency shelter. And as a family, they had priority. Through July and August, the family lived in a Fairfax motel room with two double beds, a microwave and a refrigerator. "It was clean, and the area was safe," he says.

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