When Lillie Parker moved from one of the city's temporary shelters for the homeless to a Southeast apartment, she found all the windows broken, the door locked, the stove broken, the ceiling leaking and trash everywhere. She and her three children climbed in through the bathroom window.
"I was really surprised that I had to bring me and my kids to something like this," said Parker, 28, who works in a downtown cafeteria. The family had lived in what she described as a well-kept apartment in lower Anacostia but was evicted, Parker said, after "a family crisis" caused her to fall behind in her rent.
The Parkers are among a growing number of Washington families finding themselves, because of disaster or poverty, without a place to live. Last fiscal year a total of 406 families came through the city's two emergency temporary shelters. So far this fiscal year 391 families have been housed at the shelters, and officials project that 662 will be served before the year ends in September.
Some of those families are able to find homes better than the ones they originally left, but many wind up in some of the city's worst housing, living with rats, roaches, leaks, or gaping holes in ceilings.
City officials struggling to deal with the problem find themselves squeezed from one side by a scarcity of government-subsidized housing and from the other by unaffordable private housing. They acknowledge that families who come through the shelters sometimes then move, with city assistance, into homes that do not meet the city's requirements that they be safe, decent and sanitary.
"Our policy is that no family is to leave the Parkside and Pitts hotels [the temporary shelters] and go into any housing that endangers life, safety or health," said Patricia Yates, chief of the social services division of the city's Department of Human Services.
"Our problem is that there is not a supply of housing that we would want families to have, so it is putting us and the families between a rock and a hard place."
She said her department lacks the staff to inspect the homes where families move after leaving the shelters, and that they depend on the families themselves to report any deficiencies.
Delores Reeder, 33, and her son had lived in a decrepit Benning Road NE boarding house until a fire occurred Jan. 6. She moved to the Parkside Hotel the next day. She found an efficiency apartment in a Fairmont Street NW building owned, according to deed records, by Fairmont Northwest Partnership, and the city paid a $187 security deposit to help her move in.
But she and her son moved out of the apartment after a month because the landlord failed to fix the pipes so the bathtub would not leak into the apartment below, she said.
Building manager Ritchie Gaylen declined to comment on conditions in the building.
Reeder and another former resident of the Parkside Hotel now share another efficiency in the building. The children sleep on bunk beds in the dining area. The mothers sleep in the living room/bedroom, one on a box spring and mattress placed near the front door and the other on a couch.
"The housing market for low-income families is continuing to get worse and worse," Yates said. "There is not affordable housing for low-income people in the private market."
But the private market is the only place to turn. Public housing -- once a refuge for many homeless families -- has a waiting list of 7,000 families. Some of them have been on the list for as long as seven years.
The other traditional source of housing for low-income families is subsidized housing operated by private, nonprofit sponsors but built with the assistance of the federal government. More than 7,000 units of subsidized housing have been built in the District since 1970, but those units also have long waiting lists, and about half of the new units are exclusively for the elderly.
Some of the formerly homeless, like Victoria Brown, live in boarding houses. Brown, 18, and her 11-month-old son live in two rooms in the basement of a Northeast house. They share the bathroom with the man who rents the adjacent room and the kitchen with the other four or five boarders. They pay $140 a month.
Families who have lost their homes because of eviction, fire or natural disaster and have no place to live can move free of charge into one of the city's two temporary shelters.
They are technically allowed to stay for only 20 days but often can remain longer while they look for permanent housing. Yates said families are encouraged to go as quickly as possible to make room for others. Several families said they were pressured by city social workers to take any affordable housing they could find.
To help the families search for new homes, city social workers provide them with newspaper classified ad listings and with a list of 18 real estate agents who will rent property they manage to families receiving public assistance. Then the families, who are usually mothers with children, call or visit the rental agencies on their own to ask about vacancies or sign leases.
If the families receive public assistance, the city will pay their security deposit. But they are expected to pay their own rent, and the city plays no special role in resolving disputes they may have with landlords about conditions in their new homes.
So far this year the Department of Human Services has spent $1.7 million on emergency housing payments -- mostly in security deposits and one-time rent payments to help families who have encountered special problems and avoid eviction. DHS officials could provide no breakdown of how much of the $1.7 million had been spent solely for security deposits.
At least six families have moved from the shelters into the same five-building complex in which Parker lives. While some complain about conditions in the buildings, others find their new home an improvement over their original housing.
Rosa Meniefeld and her two daughters were evicted from their rented house in Northwest Washington after her husband died earlier this year and they fell behind on the rent. All three moved to the 37th Street Apartments. Mrs Meniefield, who describes her earlier home as leaky and rat-infested, found her new apartment in good condition.
Her daughters say they and their five children are overcrowded in their two-bedroom apartment but, Rosetta Meniefield said, "We took it because we didn't want to stay at the Pitts any longer."
Parker came to a city shelter Nov. 12. In March, she found a two-bedroom basement apartment on 37th Street SE. She paid $295 as the first month's rent, and the city paid an additional $295 as the security deposit.
"I was afraid to stay here," she said recently, recalling the scene when she arrived. "All the windows were out. The only way to lock the door was from the outside. I or my son would go out, lock the door and then return through the bathroom window."
Building owner Robert Slack said Parker found bad conditions because she moved in before the apartment was ready. Both Parker and Sadie Young, the resident manager, say Parker arrived after the date Slack said the apartment would be ready.
Since she moved in, Slack has repaired the door, the stove and some windows, Parker said, but her kitchen and bathroom windows are still broken and the hallway still leaks. Slack said he fixed the windows but Parker's children have broken them again. City housing inspectors, who have made several visits to the property, said at least two of the windows have not been repaired since Parker moved in.
Slack said he has been unable to repair the leak because Parker could not be at home to accompany workmen, a contention Parker denies.
"On a scale of zero to 10 they are a five because there is a lot of work that has to be done out there," Slack said of the condition of his apartment buildings. "My house is a 10 because I work at it every day, because I respect my property and my neighbors as do most people.
"I put the condition of the buildings with the occupants of the buildings," he added.
Another former shelter resident, Elvia Allen, 29, lost her rented house after she lost her job as an accounting clerk at Amtrak. She found herself and her two children first at Parkside and then in a one-bedroom apartment on Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue NE that had no refrigerator and a broken stove.
The landlord replaced the stove, but she had to buy a refrigerator. She pays $217 a month plus electricity bills for the one-bedroom apartment, where she and her daughter share the bedroom while her son sleeps on a mattress on the living room floor.
"I am mentally frustrated, embarrassed and ashamed," she said. "I had built myself up, I thought I was working toward a goal. It's like climbing up a ladder, then falling all the way down . . . . You hate these places, but you go where you have to."