Tracye Williams is out of bed every morning at 4:15 to get her children showered, dressed and fed. Her oldest son is on a Metro bus by 4:55 to get to high school on time. Her two youngest take the 6:04 bus to middle school. Then she takes public transportation to her job with the Transportation Security Administration at Reagan National Airport.
But when the 42-year-old single mother of four (a daughter graduated from Mount Vernon High School last spring) finishes her shift, she does not get to go to her own home. That's because for more than a year -- during which she has not missed a day of work on this or her previous job, Williams says -- she and her kids have been homeless and living at the Embry Rucker Community Shelter in Reston.
If you painted a portrait of her family, you would see the new face of homelessness in America.
It's a portrait that has been enlarging steadily in the last year in Northern Virginia, Maryland and the District. And it's not just a regional spike. Driven by a struggling economy, the demand for homeless and other emergency services is high across the country, with the number of homeless families increasing at a faster rate than that of homeless single adults.
"I suspect it is going to be a record increase this year, as it was last year," said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, in Washington. "And it really does have to do with the economy, mainly loss of jobs and loss of wage-earning power."
Mary Wampler, child services coordinator at the Serve Inc. shelter in Manassas, sees the problem up close every day. "Demand is extremely high" at her facility, Wampler said. "It is not just men and women. It's families with children, where one and sometimes two parents are working. It is at an all-time high for us, and it seems to be caused, in particular, by lack of affordable housing."
Serve Inc. opened a new facility in June, doubling its family capacity. But even now, with 10 rooms, "we have turn-aways every day," Wampler said.
Similarly, the Rucker shelter exceeds its 60-person capacity by 10 or so each night, said director Aneata Bonic. Over in Baileys Crossroads, the 50-bed Crossroads Community Shelter is 98 to 100 percent full each night, director Alonzo Davis said.
It's the same across the Potomac River, even though the bitterest cold of winter is still a few weeks off. The Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless is "exceeding our capacity" of 190 beds, according to executive director Sharan London, while in the District all 8,500 public and private beds for the homeless are filled, with 300 to 400 people on the street each night, according to Steve Cleghorn of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
In fact, shelters around the country are scrambling to meet the demand of homeless families, said Lt. Col. Tom Jones, of the Salvation Army's national headquarters in Alexandria. "We are changing the configuration of our shelters," he said. "We used to have dormitories, but now we are . . . making them into apartments so children can stay with their mother or father."
Last year the Salvation Army had a record 10 million lodgings, a number that Jones expects will be surpassed this year. Each lodging represents one person spending one night in a shelter.
A U.S. Conference of Mayors survey on homelessness last year found that requests for emergency shelter in 27 cities increased by an average of 13 percent over the previous year, and requests for shelter by families were up 22 percent. Overall, 52 percent of requests for emergency shelter went unmet.
Williams, a former store clerk who got an airport security job at National two months ago, was one of the luckier ones. She found shelter for herself and her children after her marriage of 19 years ended in a divorce that sent them all sliding to the underside of the economy.
"We had two incomes. I came from a two-car family," she said. "When my ex-husband walked out, that's when my world started to crumble. I was too proud to ask for help to show me those things he always took care of. He paid the bills. I never really learned the budgeting thing."
She and the children had planned to move to a more affordable apartment in the District, but that fell through and by then her landlord had found new tenants for the apartment she was in. So the family ended up at a budget motel in Fairfax, but before she could find something affordable, her $5,000 in savings was gone, Williams said. She and the kids wound up at Fairfax County Family Services and were placed in a motel for the homeless until space became available at Embry Rucker last November.
Never in her life did she imagine she'd end up homeless. "It is eating me up on the inside," she said. "I feel like I failed my children."
Reminders of her situation are all around her.
"You hear people talking on the bus about homeless people," she said. "And they say they are all dirty and filthy and drunken bums on the street . . . . They don't know I am the face of the homeless. And I am just like them. I get up every morning and make sure my kids go to school and that they have clean clothes to wear, and that I worry about the same things that they worry about."
Williams works 40-plus-hour weeks, she said, making $12.61 an hour -- less than the $14.48 that the National Low Income Housing Coalition says is needed to afford a two-bedroom apartment in Virginia. In Maryland, the hourly figure is $16.82; in the District, it's $19.21.
The cost of affordable housing in Maryland and Virginia increased the most in the nation last year, according to the coalition -- up 13.2 percent in Maryland and 7.9 percent in Virginia. The District had the sixth-highest increase, 5.9 percent.
That trend, in turn, has spurred demand for more subsidized housing.
There are 6,000 families waiting for housing vouchers in Fairfax, said Bonic, of Embry Rucker. "It takes three years for their name to come up," she said.
Williams is on the list and is hopeful something will come open sooner. For now, though, she continues her early morning routine, trying to keep her homeless family functioning.
"Every day I pray to God that I don't fall apart," she said. "Every day to wake up and go to work is a blessing to me, because it is a day that I have made it through and not fallen apart and given up."