Standing in line at the Bread for the City food giveaway center at 14th and N streets NW, Rosemary Tyler looked out of place among the elderly men and women who picked over used clothes and packages of English muffins.
Tyler was in her thirties, neatly dressed in blue jeans and a white blouse. She looked bewildered and spoke with a soft, yet, articulate voice.
"I've never been in a situation like this before," she told a volunteer at the center. "Being on the streets like this is really something else."
The volunteer looked at her application for food. She was just one of a steady stream of "new poor" who come to the center after losing a job, a spouse or a house. The volunteer tried to console her by saying she was not alone.
Tyler had been referred to the center by the city's Kennedy Street welfare office near her home in Northwest Washington. She thought they were sending her to get food stamps, but when the volunteer called out, "Two for three," someone brought out two bags of groceries -- each bag containing enough food for about three days.
Tyler was stunned. Her two teen-age sons could go through those bags in a day, she said. But she would just have to make do.
Ever since Tyler was fired from her job in the credit office of the Government Printing Office two weeks ago, her life has been a series of hard knocks and harsh realities. After 13 years as a working mother, struggling to raise two boys alone, she was finding out what it was like to be really mistreated.
"They act like I'm some kind of an animal -- a dog," Tyler said wearily. "I'm not trying to rip off the system. One day I walked into my office and learned that I had been fired. It could happen to anybody, but the way they treat people who don't have a job, who don't have any money, is horrible."
It all started when Tyler called in sick on a payday, and when she returned to work she found a termination notice on her desk. She would never encounter a government process that operated so efficiently again.
Tyler appealed her firing, but that matter drags on. She filed for unemployment compensation, and that drags on, too. She went to the welfare office seeking emergency relief. On her first day she waited two hours to be seen. Then she spent two hours and 15 minutes with a welfare worker filling out a single sheet of paper.
Then she was told to go to the Bread for the City center until the paper could be processed -- which could take weeks, or months.
Tyler said she wouldn't have to be bothered with any of this if the "system" that was now running her into the ground had simply been able to track down her ex-husband and made him pay her the child support that he is obligated to mail each month.
Since her firing Tyler has been trying to explain this in landlord-tenant court where she is attempting to stave off an eviction, to the welfare office and the city unemployment compensation office.
A welfare worker asked her if she could use her savings until something came through for her. "What savings?" she asked. "I have two boys. One just graduated from Dunbar High School in June and I had managed to save up enough for a semester of books at the University of the District of Columbia." She hung her head in sadness. She surely did not want to disappoint him.
Meanwhile Tyler has another appointment at the unemployment compensation office and the welfare office, but she only has enough money for two more bus rides -- and one of the rides must take her back home to drop off her two bags of groceries.
So now she ponders the possibility of walking for miles from her home to the unemployment office in 85-degree weather.
"There's got to be a better way to treat people," she said, almost in tears, as she counted out her change for the bus ride home.