Chilling cold knifed through the blankets and the streetclothes worn beneath them, as a mother and her three sons attempted to get a night's sleep in a house that is not a home.
Tears would fall during the night as the reality of no jobs, food, money, clothes, heat, electricity or running water and no locks on the doors would, like the cold, seep in and penetrate defenses and strategies kept up during the day.
The Grimes family -- mother Patricia, 43, and her three sons, Charles, 18, Hewitt, 14, and Anthony, 10 -- have joined a small roving population of Southeast Washington residents who flee from abandoned homes to condemned apartment buildings in an attempt to keep a roof over their heads. They have little else.
For the past two months, the Grimes family has struggled through life in a three-bedroom, two-story detached house at 1328 Morris Rd. SE, sometimes sharing quarters with Alice Brown, the widowed and unemployed property owner. Brown has been unable to pay taxes or utility bills for the past two years. And with the loss of light and warmth, her house has deteriorated into a cold, dark, forbidding shell. She charges the Grimes family $20 a month to share her misery.
The house offers no quarter. Meals must be cooked in the back yard over a barrel. A refrigerator shelf serves as a grill. Patricia Grimes unscrews a water pipe in her bedroom every night and allows the brown, murky drips to fill a large container. When it's full, she heats it over the backyard fire. Then her boys can wash up before retiring to a bedroom where the wind whistles past them when they open the door, and gaping holes in the wall mockingly remind them of who and where they are. Scurrying animals play night games in the ceiling; shadows, dancing by moonlight on the walls, could prove fatal because of an unlocked front door.
The family uses bathrooms at the nearby Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, a neighborhood barber shop or a local gas station. School not only provides education for Anthony and Hewitt, but also the heat and hot meals their young bodies need to stay healthy. Baths are taken at their aunt's house in Barry Farms.
"I want to get out of here too," said Brown. She escapes the broken windows, slop buckets, falling plaster, wind, rain and cold by staying periodically in condemned properties in better shape than what she owns. Her house has not been condemned.
Jonas Milton, a housing consultant at Southeast House, a community social agency, for the past two months has been involved in efforts to get public assistance for Patricia Grimes. Last week her appli cation finally was approved. But the monthly stipend of $285.60 will not begin until Tuesday. "What is she to do until then?" asks Milton.
"The family should have been referred to a temporary shelter immediately because they are in a situation that poses a threat or danger to them," said the city's housing director, Robert L. Moore, when told about the Grimes family.
Then the family would have been placed at the top of a five-year waiting list for a three-bedroom apartment in public housing, said Moore. "Emergency applications are usually placed within two weeks, but since we average 15 such cases a month, others are pushed down and the list gets longer."
Rachel Lawrence, an outreach specialist for Southeast House who has known Grimes for a dozen years, said: "Our agency alone has handled 130 such cases in the past year; that would indicate there are many, many others we don't know about."
Recent drastic budget cuts by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the primary funder of the Southeast House housing program, have abolished eight of the nine housing counselor positions and cut Lawrence's work week to three days.
"It's a rough, tough emotional existence being here," sighed Lawrence as she grabbed for office phones that rang constantly.
"I don't want my picture in the paper," Charles Grimes shouted in his mother's bedroom. His grease-splotched brown khaki pants hung baggily from his hips. A dirty sweatshirt, jacket and cap completed the outfit he had worn day and night for 72 hours. His clothes may have been soiled, but the teen-ager's dignity was real. His eyes flashed fire.
"No newspaper, no pictures."
Patricia Grimes stood wearing several sweaters and a pair of jeans. Hugging herself to trap body heat, she studied her son closely as he stood in the doorway. After several minutes, and without taking her eyes off him, she said quietly, firmly: "I've got to get them some place where they'll be secure."
Another son rushed in. Seeing a stranger, he sensed danger. Anthony grabbed his mother's hands, shouting: "Mom, Mom, Mom, I've got to talk to you!"
"Later, Anthony, later," said Patricia Grimes, a Howard University dropout who majored in psychiatry for two years before tuition costs overpowered her.
Then Hewitt entered the room. Handsome, tall, erect, high-brown, he said nothing. But the fear and sorrow showing on his face, the uncertainty in his eyes, and the stark, unmistakable circles under them screwed the coil tighter, causing Patricia Grimes to make a choking sound.
She moved quickly. Ushering her sons out and closing the door, she turned to the stranger, looked him in the eye, and waited for the first question.
"My husband got locked up a year ago; since then we've been trying to make it," she said.
Wheeling and dealing drugs in a city of the chronically unemployed, the breadwinner got caught and sent up for 10 to 20 years.
Charles started running away from home, staying in youth shelters the maximum time allowed, touching base at home, and running off again. "He didn't have a job and he didn't want to be a burden," said his mother. "But he always returned to me."
Michael, 13, her fourth son, was sent to live with Grimes' sister in the Barry Farms project. "But even now," Grimes said, "he visits me every day."
The building she was living in, five blocks from the Morris Road house, was eventually condemned. But since she couldn't afford to pay the rent anyway, she said, she decided to stay on with her two remaining sons. Two months ago, the owners forced the family to leave, Grimes said.
The wandering began. Grimes, with her sons, took to the streets looking for a place to live. Laden with boxes and shopping bags full of clothes, blankets and food, they checked out, peeked into, and sized up abandoned houses on their route, discovering they were either filled up or inhabited by rowdies.
Alice Brown had checked out of her house yet again after finding a condemned apartment that still had the gas turned on. When the Grimes family appeared at 1328 Morris Rd., Brown's house was empty, the door knobless and lockless, so in they went to stay. When Brown returned a week or so later, a rental agreement was hammered out, and off she went, back to her gas stove.
With no regular income, money and food are hustled in the traditional street ways: whatever it takes to "get over," you do. Patricia Grimes cuts deals and borrows from relatives and friends to buy "hot" food stamps. Anthony and Hewitt collect aluminum cans in bags larger than they are to pick up a quarter a pound for the metal from recycling centers. Charles said he cleans the parking lot at Gino's restaurant on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue for "three pieces of chicken."
He panhandles as well. "I've got to do it, I'm not working," he said. Charles wants to be a security guard. His reason: "I want to protect things." A 7th-grade dropout, Charles has just come off a love affair. "I'm low as a truck," he moaned. He reads constantly: signs, newspaper headlines. As he walks, he talks. "I've got to keep my skill up," he explained.
Life zips through all the gruesomeness. Charles' love affairs, Anthony feverishly polishing his shoes, Hewitt's devotion to basketball. But everyone avoids the house. The house is dead.
Alice Brown returned to Morris Road last weekend. The gas connection in the condemned building where she was staying finally had been turned off. Her bedroom was waiting undisturbed.