In the room she calls home, Louise Easterling is never alone. With her three children and four grandchildren, with borrowed toys and a broken record player, Easterling passes the days watching soap operas on television, playing Scrabble, gently rocking her infant grandson and wondering when her family's life will get better.
"The first thing I ever wanted when I was growing up was a nice home," Easterling said yesterday as she sat on a cot resting on worn floorboards.
"I wanted three girls and three boys," she said, talking softly. "All I ever wanted to do was make a home for myself and my kids and my husband. It just didn't turn out that way."
Trying to fit too many people into too little space has been a way of life for Easterling for some years now, and this week she tried to do something about it.
The Easterlings are among thousands in Washington without decent housing. City officials say they are afraid that more and more families are doubling up, moving in with friends and relatives, as housing costs soar and inner-city row houses, once claimed only by the poor, have become popular with the middle class.
Thousands of apartments in the city have been converted to condominiums, while few new rental properties are being built. Comminity observers say a new class of "urban nomads" is being created.
Easterling, 38, was one of about 2,000 people who overflowed two District of Columbia housing offices Tuesday after hearing that applications would be taken for rent subsidies for 126 arpartments in the city.
Easterling arrived at one office at 2 a.m., and was first in line. But housing officials alarmed by the crush later that morning, sent all the people home after asking them to leave their names and addresses rather than applications. The officials said everybody would be called within seven days.
"I'm praying that I hear from them soon," Easterling said yesterday. "I've been let down so many times, I don't get my hopes up any more."
Easterling and the children share the one room on the top floor of a dilapidated row house at New Jersey and M streets NW, within sight of the Capitol dome.
She pays $200 a month for the room, sharing the rest of the three-bedroom apartment with her girlfriend and her girlfriend's son, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
There is no refrigerator. Only recently was the bathroom repaired, enabling the family to take baths. The walls and ceiling are filled with holes and cracks. Rats prowl the kitchen. Strips of fabric cover the windows and a closed-up fireplace along one wall attests to the former elegance of the Victorian row house.
Easterling, who has been separated for a decade from her husband, receives public assistance payments of $633 a month for the eight of them as well as $116 a month in food stamps. "I get the money on the first," she said. "By the fourth, I don't have a dime. That's the truth."
Easterling used to work as a cook in neighborhood restaurants but now she says that heart trouble and other ailments make it impossible for her to work steadily. Occasionally, she said, she cooks for dinner parties.
"I don't think there's nothing on this earth I can't cook," she said.
But these days her cooking is pretty much limited to oatmeal, chicken and rice, neckbone vegetable soup, dumplings, beans or the potato soup with cornbread that her grandchildren love, she said.
"Once in a while, I might cook a meatloaf that lasts two days," she said.
She buys paper diapers for the 10-day-old boy, and admonished her 21-year-old daughter at one point yesterday when she wanted to change the infant, "Are you sure? I only have six left." She recently bought nightshirts and blankets and a sweater set for the baby, and was shocked to learn they cost $60.
She said she isn't too proud to shop at secondhand stores and that by the time she buys food and such other necessities as toilet tissue there is no money left.
"I haven't been to a movie or a party since I started having grandchildren," she said. "If I ever got to go to a hairdresser, I think I'd cry."
Easterling said she does the family laundry when she can at a coin laundry. Sometimes, because she doesn't have enough money, she washes the clothers in the big tub in the house and dries them at the laundry.
She rarely leaves the house and knows few people in the neighborhood, a mixture of abandoned and renovated rowhouses and small stores.
"If it wasn't for my kids, I don't know what I'd do," she said. There will be no Christmas gifts this year, nor a Christmas tree. "This is the second year my kids have done without. But they seem to understand," she said.
At night the family beds down about 9:30, with Easterling and her 3-year-old grandson Christopher, known as "Pepper," sleeping on a small cot. Baby Michael sleeps in a small basket. Timothy, 19 months, Brenda, 21, Roy,10, Richardo, 15, and Tina, 4, share the remaining couch mattress and bed.
Easterling described her life in recent years as one of "moving, moving, moving." Before moving in with her girlfriend, the family lived on Yuma Street SE, renting a house for $300 a month.
But the owner decided to sell that house soon after they moved in last June, Easterling said, and offered to sell it to Easterling first -- as required by city law -- for $45,000.
"I wish I could have bought it," Easterling said. But I couldn't even think about it."
Before that, Easterling and her family paid $219 a month for a Southwest Washington apartment where they lived for six or seven months. They finally were evicted because of overcrowing, Easterling said. They had the same experience on Pitts Place SE, where they had lived for two years, she said.
"They were all two-bedrooms," said Easterling. "That's all I could find at the time.
Before moving to Pitts Place, the family lived on U Street SE for four years. But there was a gas-burning stove in the middle of the floor, and the children kept falling on it and burning themselves.
Easterling said she hopes to apply for the five-bedroom house from the city, but will accept a four-bedroom if she has to.
Like other tenants, she arrived at the city office Tuesday thinking the city provided the homes, only to discover that the program works something like "finders keepers." The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announces each year that it will provide subsidies for a certain number of apartments.
Tenants who qualify get certificates from the city, and then go out and find a landlord willing to rent to them. They pay no more than one-fourth of the income in rent, with the rest of the rent charged by the landlord paid from federal housing subsidies.
Easterling said she'd like to move out of the city. I've been here all my life," she said. "I'd give anything in the world if I could move to the suburbs. This is not a place for kids. There's just a little bit too much going on here,"