For Sophia Harrison, the 37-year-old mother of nine children, there are compensations. She is living with eight of her children and there is a roof over their heads.
But after that, there are no blessings.
Harrison is an asthmatic and, she said, so are all her children.
She is separated from her husband. She has no job. Home for her and the eight youngsters, the oldest of whom is 15, is a two-bedroom apartment. Until Jan. 31, she had to stay with a sister in Maryland where her youngsters were not eligible to attend school. They have not attended class since before Christmas.
Harrison cannot look for work until the children are in school because the city shelter in which she is living requires that an adult be present at any time a child is home.
"It's like being in jail," she told a reporter recently. "But really, I'm thankful at least that I'm here."
"Here is one of 10 apartments in the Department of Human Resources shelter at 2850 Hartford St. SE, one of two operated by the city agency. The second is in the process of being moved to 1531 P St. NW.
"I don't know when I'll be able to get out of here," Harrison said. "The kids haven't been to school since Dec. 16.If they don't get back soon, they'll be left back. And she scolded her oldest son. Carlos, for coming out of a bedroom before combing his hair.
"I want my children to respect everyone they meet and to earn their respect in turn. I'm not going to change the way I bring them up because of some bad luck," she said.
Her bad luck began when she was forced to move from her home in Washington last October. She moved in with a friend for a while and in December decided to live with her sister in Maryland. But the children, city residents, could not attend school in Maryland. And, as the end of January approached, Harrison was told that if she did not return to the city by Jan. 31 she would sacrifice her monthly welfare check of $646.50.
"I called them up (public assistance) and asked them what I was supposed to do. They told me I should take my children and get them into the District, to go to a phone booth and call them. I had to pick up and leave in freezing weather or lose my check," she said.
Fortunately, an apartment was available in the shelter. It is small and stuffy and obviously inadequate for nine human beings.
Betty Haney, Harrison's caseworker, said the family may have to wait a while to move out of the shelter. "It's going to take a miracle at this point to find housing for them. Once you get a family with more than three children, it's tough in this town. And the fact that they're asthmatic makes finding acceptable housing at an affordable price almost impossible," Haney said.
Sophia Harrison is trying to avoid being shattered by the experience. But if Haney is correct in her assessment of her housing chances, the future does not look bright.
"The ironic thing is that it says in the papers people sign when they come in here that they'll only stay for a maximum of five days," said Joseph Eason, supervisor of the Hartford Street shelter since it opened in 1975. "A woman like Mrs. Harrison would love to have been out of here in five days, but there was no way."
Eason said no one has stayed in his shelter longer than 124 days. The average stay varies each month, but can be as high as 50 days, he said. "No one stays just five days," he said.
Harrison's plight is not unique in a city beset by a growing shortage of housing. Families burned out of homes, evicted or forced to move from condemned homes are numerous in Washington and, with the housing shortage, relief if often a long way off.
"They told me that even if I could find a decent place in Maryland, I couldn't live there because then I'd lose my checks. They tell me I have to live in the District, but there's no place in the District to live," Harrison said.
With that, Harrison turned to her son, Jerome, 4 who had just come into the room. "Did you make your bed yet?" she asked sternly. Jerome turned to go in and make the bed.
"I haven't given up yet," she said with a sigh, "but I don't know how much longer it will be before I do."