Katherine Thomas and her seven children, evicted from their apartment like many other large, poor Washington families, lived for more than two months in one room at the Pitts Motor Hotel, a city-contracted emergency shelter for homeless families. They shared two beds and a cot.
Last week, after media inquiries about their living conditions, Thomas was told by city housing officials that her number had come up and she could move into a four-bedroom apartment in a public housing project. She had been on a waiting list for more than six years.
But when Thomas moves out of the hotel this week she will be leaving behind other families, some even larger than hers and some who have waited longer for housing. Unable to find affordable private housing, dozens of families end up at the Pitts each year. They have nowhere to go, and no immediate hope for permanent housing of any kind.
Theresa and Reginald Gatlin and their five children have lived in one room at the Pitts since last May. Anita and Kamaul Braxton have shared two rooms at the Pitts with their nine children since the middle of August. Hotel owner Cornelius C. Pitts said most homeless families assigned to the shelter remain there longer than the maximum 20 days set by city regulations.
The Thomas, Gatlin, and Braxton families are only three of the hundreds in Washington that are homeless because they are large and poor, according to city officials. Many of them become tangled in a web of government agencies that are supposed to help them but cannot fill their most pressing need: a decent place to live.
D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development officials acknowledge that it is unlawful for large groups of people to live in one room, as many families do at the Pitts, but the Department of Human Services allows the practice to continue.
A staggering 8,500 families in the District await public housing and another 125 families apply each week, according to public housing occupancy chief Vivian Tapscott. More than 500 families on the list need four- and five-bedroom apartments, Tapscott said.
For Katherine Thomas, a welfare recipient and single parent (the father of six of her children is serving time at Lorton for robbery, she said), the nightmare of homelessness began after she was evicted from her second apartment this year. She could not find an affordable apartment large enough for herself and her children, who are 9 months to 15 years old.
The Pitts is like a "nether world" where people live in "indefinite temporary situations," observed one housing official.
"The problem with people needing four and five bedrooms is that the turnover is so low" in such apartments, said Tapscott. "It used to be people would move in and then leave after they found a place they could afford. Now they don't leave."
Temporary residents of the Pitts are required to look for private housing and are assisted by social workers who have offices in the hotel, but residents complain that such a search almost always is an excercise in futility.
"Nobody wants to rent to somebody on welfare," said Theresa Gatlin, who said she has been displaced seven times in the last 11 years. "We can't find places because we have no credit references and no money. Where am I gonna get the money to even make a rent deposit?" she added bitterly.
"It is the large families we have a very difficult time with," said Donald Butler, DHS chief of emergency and specialized adult services. "When they are put in the Pitts emergency shelter they are there because they have nothing. No jobs, no money and no relatives or friends who are willing to put them up."
"Families such as Thomas' are caught in a bind because even when our people find private housing for them, the cost is almost always prohibitive," Butler said. "Consequently, they remain in the shelters like the Pitts until public housing becomes available."
In the meantime, the Braxtons and the Gatlins of the city wait, but not always patiently.
Thomasine Thomas (no relation to Katherine Thomas), who shares one room at the Pitts with four children, says she is tired of hearing from city housing officials that no housing is available. She and others staying at the Pitts know, and city officials acknowledge, that hundreds of city-owned apartments stand empty and boarded up.
"All I am asking for is an apartment where I can live decently, get established and find myself a job," said Thomasine Thomas. "I'll take the boards off those apartments and fix them up myself if I have to."
But there is little chance those apartments will solve the public housing shortage. "Modernization money is not used for vacant units," DHCD director Robert Moore wrote in a Sept. 9 letter to Florence Wagman Roisman, a lawyer with the National Housing Law Project, a housing advocacy organization. "More often than not we will not have enough money in our operating budget to rehabilitate the city's vacant properties ."