"My feeling about welfare is that you couldn't have designed a more effective program to destroy the family if you sat down and thought about it for a year ." -- The Rev. Tom Nees
For the last 10 months, Arlene Robinson and her six children have lived a hand-to-mouth existence, mostly on the streets of Washington, with their few belongings stuffed into paper shopping bags and the remnants of their pride stuffed somewhere beneath that.
They are on welfare and without a home.
Robinson, 29, tall and thin, has the lines of grim determination and resolve chiseled on what would otherwise be a plain and youthful face. "My babies," she says firmly, "are going to have a better life than this."
Each day, she leads the children, aged 4 to 12, in a recitation of the 27th Psalm, reading slowly from the large leather Bible she carries in her battered black vinyl purse:
"Leave me not, neither forsake me, O God of my salvation ."
Since she and the children were evicted from their one-bedroom apartment in the Adams-Morgan section of Northwest Washington last February, Robinson has hit the streets regularly, searching in vain for a place where she and the children can live together within the confines of her $543.03 monthly welfare check. In the meantime, they have crowded into the one-bedroom apartments of assorted friends and sometimes slept in basements, on floors, and even outside.
"When my father and mother forsake me, then the Lord will take me up ."
With no stable home life, the children became more than Robinson could care for, so she sent her four oldest -- her sons -- to live with an elderly aunt who grudgingly took them in, but said she had no room for Robinson and her two daughters. At the time, Robinson promised the boys the arrangement would be temporary, but now it appears she may have to give them up entirely if they are to have a chance for something better.
Most of her monthly welfare check, usually about $350, goes to her aunt for the boys' care, and she and her two daughters do the best they can on the rest, about $195. But her aunt wants guardianship of Robinson's sons so that she can collect aid to dependent children for them: A caseworker from the city's Child Protective Services office told Robinson that if the family did not appear to have a stable home life, it might be better for the children to live with someone else, and that a parent not living in the same home as her children was considered neglectful. Robinson knows all this, but her problem is that she cannot find a large enough apartment on her welfare check, and the welfare department will not help her with a security deposit if she does not tell a prospective landlord the truth about the size of her family.
Robinson's words are laced with despair as she sits in the office of the Rev. Tom Nees, founder of the Community of Hope, an agency designed to help people in the 14th Street community with a variety of problems, including housing. Her two little girls, Arnise, 7, and Joyce, 6, sit at her feet like sad-eyed ebony statuettes, listening as their mother tells the story once again.
She chose to keep them with her, Robinson says, because she thought it would be easier to rent an apartment with two daughters [and sneak the boys in later], and because "nobody told me anything about life when I was their age: that's how I got into this mess and I want to make sure the same thing doesn't happen to them."
Robinson never married the children's father -- a man she's known since her teens -- and of him she only says, "He knows of the situation, but he's not in any more of a position then I am to do anything about it."
Robinson's own mother died when she was 9, and she thinks that at least part of her problems arose because she did not have any guidance in matters pertaining to sex and birth control. "I was more or less out on the streets with nobody to care for me, to provide that motherly love. I was raised by a woman who was older and not the type to sit down and talk about sex. She was old-fashioned and we never had the kind of talks that a mother and daughter should have. So when I finally got out, I went wild. After my first two children were born, I asked a priest why all these things were happening to me . . . why I couldn't take the Pill [it made her sick], why my life was going in the direction it was. He said, 'The Lord will not put anything on you you can't bear.' I believed that for a while, but now, I don't know what I believe.
"But I intend to be right here to see that my daughters don't make the same mistake. If they've got questions, they know they can ask.I tell them to set high goals for themselves, and if I catch some man even looking at either of them, I'm going to break his neck.
"I'm sure people think I have 500 tax-free dollars each month and why can't I do anything with it. But do you know what it costs to keep six kids in food? Clothes? They are not going to go around hungry and tacky. Other children can be hateful and I don't want my kids to put up with any more of that than they'd have to anyway."
Robinson says the separation from her boys is tearing her apart. They have never been separated before and she is fearful they will think she has abandoned them and perhaps turn to the rough life of the streets. With the money that is left over after she pays her aunt for taking care of the boys, Robinson finds shelter for herself and her girls by paying friends to take them in, often in cramped and unsanitary quarters. Sometimes the cost for this shelter is back rent, sometimes she has to pay to have a disconnected utility restored. She and the girls had been staying with a couple in a one-bedroom apartment on Chapin Street NW, when Robinson discovered the apartment was what drug abusers call a shooting gallery. They left, and have spent recent nights on the floor of someone's basement.
Because city rental housing regulations say that two children of the opposite sex may not share a bedroom and that no child may share a bedroom with a parent, Robinson would need at least a three-bedroom apartment. Local real estate experts say she would be extremely lucky to find such housing in the District, but that if she did, even the worst such apartment could cost at least $550 a month.
Nees says he believes the number of poor people without shelter appears to be increasing in the District. In the last month, he estimates he has had more than 100 calls from homeless people seeking help.
"We are not able to aid even a fraction of those people who call," he said, "and many of them are in desperate situations: Out on the street, hungry; these are common problems and I really haven't come across any city agency that is prepared to do anything about it. In the winter, things just get worse."
Welfare case workers, including Robinson's, are well aware of the problem, but have no solutions, either. "Basically, I have to tell them that shelter is their problem and just to be persistent," one caseworker said.
It is a problem Arlene Robinson doesn't think she can cope with much longer.
"There are days when I just don't think I can go on anymore. I want to be an asset to my kids, they're good kids and they deserve better than this."
From inside her Bible, she pulls out copies of her children's report cards, glittering strings of "excellents" and "very goods," A's and B's. She is determined to keep it that way. Her children are involved in after-school activities, and her oldest daughter talks of becoming a lawyer.
So throughout it all, Robinson has dropped her daughters off at school each morning. When the apartment hunting is particularly bad, she sometimes goes to school and spends the day as a volunteer mother. But her dream is to find an apartment or a house where they could live comfortably and she could return to school and become a cosmetologist.
"On Thanksgiving, me and my girls went to a mission where they were serving free dinners, and they cried because they missed their brothers. I promised we'd all be together for Christmas Day, but now I have to think of how to tell them that probably won't happen, either, that mommy had to make another empty promise.
"You know that look kids get on their faces when you let them down? Their eyes get all watery and you know they're thinking how could you?' I keep getting that look from my kids and it tears me up."