She juggles rent payments to buy her children $3-a-pair pants from K-mart, feeds them a diet of powdered milk, bread, chicken now and then, and on really rare occasions, hamburger.
She lives in a dilapidated public housing project with missing lights in the hallway, spray-paint graffiti on the walls and a WPGC radio bumber sticker for an address tag.
For Brenda Steen, new clothes or a night on the town are unthinkable. So, too, is her dream of giving her three young children another life besides their hand-to-mouth existence in a neighborhood "crawling with hookers, shooters, dopers and muggers."
"What future they got?" she asks, glancing down at her daughter, Chiquita, age 3, and Javan, age 1, who are eating broken potato chips -- the main course of today's lunch.
"This ain't living," she says, surveying her tiny apartment's blank walls, the grimy hardwood floor, and two bolt locks on the door. "This is surviving."
She pauses, finishing her Coke.
"I guess I ain't doing too bad, things been badder. But if I just got even $100 a month more it would be enough to make it."
Making it, she explains, means not having to delay paying one bill this month in order to pay the one she ignored last month.
Steen doesn't need government statistics to convince her that it's tough living on welfare payments in the nation's capital.
For her, the $132-a-month gap between what officials say is the minimum a family of four needs to live here and the biggest welfare payment that family actually can receive is not some abstract point on a graph. It's the difference between eating chicken or eating chicken soup.
According to D.C. officials, there are 56,420 children in the city whose mothers receive child support payments. Those payments have been frozen here since July 1979, while inflation has continued to climb. The problems Steen and her children now face are typical, officials say, of the problems other welfare women with too many bills and too little cash are struggling with.
Steen is 26, but sitting in her apartment in the 4000 block of Quarles St. NE, she looks older. The sunlight from the lone living room window reveals a woman without makeup, her hair uncombed, her faded blouse stained by sweat, her black pants worn, her voice tired.
She moved to the Kenilworth housing project about 14 months ago when she was pregnant with Javan. Her husband had deserted her several months earlier, she says, so she had been living at her aunt's house.
Steen receives $348.73 each month in Aid to Families with Dependent Children. She gets $121 in food stamps, making her monthly income $469.73 or $5,636.76 per year for a family of four.
"That ain't much in this here town," she says. If she didn't get some extra help from her boyfriend who also is Javan's father, it would be impossible for her to live on the government payments, she says.
Her apartment costs $64 per month, including all utilities. That leaves $405.73.
The next big expense is food. Steen claims her $121 in food stamps buy only part of the groceries she needs. "My kids are big eaters," she says, looking at a grinning photograph of Dennis, age five, who is in schoo. "And there ain't anywhere cheap 'round here to buy food."
She spends a minimum of $50 a week for groceries, she says. That deducts another $200 to $250 from her $405.73, leaving about $200 or less.
It has been nearly two years since she ate in a restaurant other than a fast-food place, Steen says. Even a trip out for hamburgers is considered a major and rare treat for her children.
The next big expense, she says, is clothing, shoes in particular. Her children usually outgrow their shoes before Steen saves enough money to buy a new pair. It has been months since she bought herself a new dress, blouse, pair of pants or shoes, she adds.
"When I shop," she says, "I do it at K-Mart," a store that sells girls' dresses for $3 and boys pants for about the same.
After clothing, there's the telephone bill, her furniture payment and her transportation expenses -- bus fares mostly. Sometimes the money runs out after three weeks. When that happens, she asks her boyfriend for a loan.
It has been a year since Steen went out for a big night on the town. The last evening out included munching popcorn with her boyfriend at a nearby drive-in theater where a Kung Fu movie was showing.
Steen usually spends her nights watching television with her boyfriend at home or watching him bowl at a nearby alley. "He's a real good bowler," she says, pointing to a row of trophies in her apartment window.
Steen grew up in the District and has never traveled much outside its boundaries.
Her dream right now is to get a three-bedroom apartment. Because she lives in public housing -- where rental rates are adjusted to income -- she could afford one if there was one available.
"I don't like having my boy and girl in the same room," she says. "I complained and told them I wanted a bigger place, but they just told me to put the girl in the living room.
"When she's 15, then she can move, they say. Huh! Ain't nobody care about you around here but yourself," she says.
Her apartment is full of contrasts. She does not have much furniture, but the plaid sofa and two matching chairs are new, even though their brown and white cushions already are stained and their laminated wood frames are badly chipped. Steen has a year-old color television console against one bare wall. An inexpensive but new stereo record player, complete with tape deck and radio, is in the corner. There's a Princess telephone with push buttons tucked under the simulated wood coffee table.
Javan, who is sitting on the tile floor, wears only a diaper, but it's a disposable diaper and one of the most expensive available.
Asked why she had the color television and the Princess telephone if things were so bad, Steen paused, and then explained that her boyfriend is paying for the television and stereo.
"Just cause I'm poor, just cause my kids ain't got much, don't mean we don't want things, don't mean we don't like having some things.
"I don't tell anybody how they spend their money so why should they tell me how to spend mine?
"Just cause you is poor," she says, "don't mean you don't want what everyone else got."