Justin Britton and his younger brother, Russell Jr., participate in track and field activities at their respective schools, Eliot Junior High and Payne Elementary, in the District. The boys run relays and cross-country, and compete in the hurdles and high jump. Schoolmates cheer for them at track meets, but the brothers also deserve kudos for the impossibly high hurdles they jump when no one is watching.
These are the obstacles that come with being displaced.
"I used to come home from school, put my book bag down, go to the kitchen table and start doing my homework," said Russell Jr., 10, an honor roll student. "Now I just use one of my hardback reading books and put a piece of paper on that to write on."
The Britton family has been on the move since March, when the Capitol Hill apartment building in which they lived for 10 years was sold, the tenants were evicted and the place began to be converted into upscale condominiums. For seven months now, the family has sought temporary refuge with relatives in the Washington area, some of whose homes already were overcrowded with other displaced kin.
When I caught up with the Brittons over the weekend, they were camped out in a room at a Comfort Inn, near Central Avenue and the Capital Beltway in Prince George's County. The boys were playing the card game Uno on the double bed they share. The parents, Russell Sr. and Tanja Britton, sat cramped together on the other bed.
"I miss having a home more than anything else in the world," said Justin, 13. His mother's eyes began tearing up, so Justin sounded a more optimistic note. "But it's not so bad here," he said.
Tanja Britton worked as a unit clerk at D.C. General, on a lockdown ward for sick inmates from the city jail. She lost her job when the hospital closed four years ago, then she developed complications from diabetes and became disabled. Russell Sr. is a diesel mechanic helper with experience in basic home repair. He'd probably make a good wage if he could work.
But his days are taken up caring for his wife, driving the children to and from school and looking for a handicap-accessible apartment -- which he probably couldn't get even if he found one because he does not have a job. Their motel bills are paid from a $1,500-a-month retirement disability check that Tanja Britton receives.
"Some days, I come back here feeling so stressed out and dejected that I just collapse," Russell Sr. said.
The District coffers are flush with a $1.2 billion reserve fund, largely as a result of the real estate boom, and city officials have pledged to spend about $21 million on the homeless and other support services this year. None of that largess, however, has reached the Brittons.
Moreover, Tanja Britton says she can't understand why homelessness caused by gentrification is not viewed as seriously as homelessness caused by natural disasters. When she learned that evacuees from New Orleans were being placed at the top of District's waiting list for subsidized housing -- a list that her family has been on since 2001 -- she became angry and then ashamed for feeling that way.
"It's not that the hurricane victims shouldn't be helped," she said. "It's just that we've been taxpaying residents of this city for most of our lives, and when we need help, we get treated like a throwaway family."
Suddenly, she hung her head and raised a hand, palm up, silencing herself. "Lord, have mercy; I'm ranting," she said. Her husband put his arms around her. "Sometimes we get a little agitated, being squished up together like this," he said. Then he squeezed her until she smiled.
Their sons seemed relieved.
Russell Jr. said, "We have Katrina victims at our school, and we had a nice program for them." Then Justin said, "Some of them have people in their families who are still missing."
Russell Jr. chimed in again, "Like you always tell us, Mom: 'As long as we have each other, that's all that really matters.' "
Well, maybe not all that matters. There is track and field, which could get them scholarships to college. And there is the matter of having a home.
"One day we're going to get us a house and be a family like before," Russell Jr. said. Call that a leap of faith, guaranteed to cut any hurdle down to size.