The talk is about black jeans -- which brand is best, where to buy them and for how much.
The subtext is much deeper: It's about poverty and dignity, and about seeing the big picture in small, day-to-day decisions while moving from homelessness to independence.
The speakers are twentysomethings sitting on a sofa in an Arlington apartment on a cold rainy night.
Roxana Torrico, a case manager for the Arlington-Alexandria Coalition for the Homeless, sits on the sofa in her client's living room, explaining the importance of saving money.
Beside her is Tiffany Jefferson, whose life has been a series of migrations from group homes to relatives to homeless shelters since her mother was murdered on the streets of the District 15 years ago.
Jefferson listens to Torrico with a mixture of respect, resignation and a little impatience. She already has shown her monthly budget to Torrico, accounting for almost every dollar spent on groceries, utilities and her children's school pictures. She has given a progress report on her search for a job. As her two toddlers vie for her attention, Jefferson promises that later that night she will write up her holiday wish list of things that she and her children need or might like so that the agency can try to provide them.
When the subject turns to buying clothes and shoes for her children, Jefferson mentions visiting the Gap.
Torrico, trying to be diplomatic, suggests that Jefferson put aside the "mall mentality." Why not try shopping at T.J. Maxx, a brand-name discounter, to save a little money, Torrico suggests.
"That's like a K-Mart," Jefferson says, her face and voice expressing unmistakable contempt.
"It is not," Torrico responds, defensively. "It's not a K-Mart."
The women are close in age -- Jefferson is 21; Torrico is 27 -- and they both have volunteered for an uneasy mission: to help Jefferson negotiate the transition between a homeless shelter and living on her own through the agency's Adopt-A-Family program.
At a time when the scarcity of affordable housing in the Washington region has reached alarming proportions, the Adopt-A-Family program is helping low-income families such as Jefferson's find and keep homes. Many are single-parent families headed by women who have suffered domestic violence, and most arrive after spending time in emergency shelters.
"There's more demand than we can meet, generally," says Edward Rea, executive director of the coalition. Rea, a retired employee of the U.S. Office of Management and Budget who became the coalition's executive director in June, says the affordable housing crisis remains acute in Northern Virginia, despite the sluggish economy.
It is particularly difficult for the agency's clients. As the discussion over affordable housing has moved to the fore, much of the talk has focused on rising housing costs squeezing people in the middle class, such as teachers, police officers and firefighters. But those who feel the pinch in the middle class might be earning 60 percent of the region's median income, while many of his clients earn only 10 percent, Rea says. According to the 2000 Census, the median household income in Arlington is $63,000; the median income in Alexandria is $56,054.
Many of the program's clients also have little or no experience running a household. Others have poor credit histories that hinder their chances of finding a home. With a caseworker's help, however, they learn how to fill out rental applications and how to care for the apartment so that the landlord will give them a good reference when they move. They learn how to fill out job applications and conduct job interviews. They attend classes on parenting. They receive money to attend job-training courses in computers and clerical work.
The program, which is voluntary, requires participants to submit to regular home visits and sign over their paychecks or government aid so that the agency can help them manage their funds. The arrangement helps clients save money, clean up their debts and stay on track with their goal of independence. In return, the agency assists clients with rent, utilities and child care, if necessary. A related program, LifeWorks, offers employment counseling and job training. Services for Kids in Transition, known as SKIT, provides coordinators, who help arrange child care, doctor visits, immunizations and diversions for children in the program. The coordinators also act as liaisons with the children's schools.
Jefferson says she had depended on other people all her life until she entered the program.
She admits to sometimes manipulating the budget figures so that she can get more money -- it's hers, after all. And she confesses that she sometimes feels like she wants to quit the program the moment she accepts a job offer and tell the agency where to get off.
"There's been times I was saying, 'If I could give it up right now, I would,' " Jefferson says.
But she is also thankful that Torrico and the agency have brought her this far. If not for Torrico, Jefferson says, she might have told off her new landlord because of a roach problem. Or she might have just left her former apartment without giving notice -- burning a bridge with a possible future reference. And so, after an hour chatting, Jefferson decides she will stick with the program until January, when they agreed she would leave.
"When she's frustrated, she's like, 'I don't need you guys anymore,' " Torrico says. "I have told Tiffany time and time again, 'You can leave anytime, and you're only here as long as you want to be.' We have a pretty good relationship for the most part. I'm tough, but I think I cut her a lot of slack."
The Adopt-A-Family program traces its beginning to 1987, two years after members of the religious community formed the Arlington-Alexandria Coalition for the Homeless to address the growing problem of homelessness. The Adopt-A-Family program grew dramatically in 1996, with increased funding, Rea says.
Today, the coalition has a staff of 15 full-time and 10 part-time employees and an annual budget of about $1.4 million. The agency serves more than 300 people a year, including 166 people in Adopt-A-Family private apartments and 135 people in its transitional homeless shelter, known as Sullivan House, on Ninth Road North in Arlington. Sullivan House, in a county-owned building, has 10 apartments that can house about 50 people, Rea says.
On another night on another sofa in another living room, Lorraine Davis-Dantley, the Adopt-A-Family program's new director, visits with Cholena "C.C." Smith, 27, a single mother of four children.
Two years ago, after leaving an abusive partner, Smith was working almost round-the-clock on two jobs -- folding laundry and making bricks -- to pay the bills while supporting her children in a Manassas motel. She moved in with friends for a time. Then, the man was let out of jail and threatened her, she says, and she entered a shelter for domestic violence victims. After a month there, she entered Sullivan House.
Now she participates in the Adopt-A-Family program. She lives in the Buckingham section of Arlington in a neat, sparsely furnished basement apartment.
"They're not just there to pay the rent," Smith says. "They're there to help you with what you need -- whatever."
Three of her children live with her; her eldest boy lives with Smith's mother in Springfield. When Davis-Dantley arrives, a small Christmas tree, trimmed in gold tinsel, is glowing in the corner, a decoration Smith put up the day after Halloween.
On the coffee table sit two burning candles and a ledger of Smith's monthly budget with a tally of all her spending, right down to the laundry bill and two cartons of cigarettes. There are receipts, too: paint from Home Depot, dinner with her kids at Chuck E. Cheese.
Davis-Dantley, all smiles, applauds Smith's progress -- not that it has been this easy all along. Now and then, Davis-Dantley has had to bring her into line, Smith says.
"She's given it to me when it needs to be given," Smith says, her eyes opening wide.
Davis-Dantley throws back her head and laughs.
"I like the way you put that," says Davis-Dantley, who used to work as a student coordinator at Georgetown University's Minority Student Affairs Office. "You put that very well."
Before Adopt-A-Family, Smith says, she had no financial discipline whatsoever. She would go to the drugstore to buy toothpaste and come back with a shopping cart full of trinkets for her children. Then Davis-Dantley stepped in.
"She talks to me about what I've spent and how I've spent it," Smith says. "She basically keeps on me, and that's what I need -- someone keeping on me."
Her life was chaotic in other ways, too: her children -- 4-year-old twins and a 3-year-old -- had no set hour for baths or bedtime, and often piled into her bed to sleep. Smith, exhausted day and night, often missed appointments.
Davis-Dantley worked with her on setting routines for the children and finding a place where they could have their own bedrooms. Now the family has a daily routine, beginning at 6:15 a.m., that ends with baths, story time and bed by 8:30 p.m., Smith says. The change has been noticeable for everyone, including her children.
"They're a lot more happy. They're a lot nicer to each other," Smith says. "Oh, my God -- if I was in the non-routine world now, I would be sleeping."