Dora Dozier, 57, the matriarch of her family, greets visitor to their tiny two-bedroom apartment with apologies. She forces open the apartment door against the broken baby carriage lodged next to a dilapidated sofabed and boxes of clothing.
On the sofa, the floor, kitchen chairs and steps, anywhere available, Dozier's daughters, sons and grandchildren, 10 of the 15 who live there, sit like refugees, telling horror stories of being poor and overcrowded in a $256-a-month substandard apartment designed for four people at best. An annual welfare income of about $9,000 and the inability to get into public housing keeps them trapped there.
"When I wake up in the morning, and see this child sleeping here, this one over there, two adults in a single bed, kids all over the floor and two babies sleeping in a bassinet, it makes me want to cry," Dozier said. "I've been on the city's waiting list for public housing for four years, but I don't seem to get nowhere."
Members of Dozier's extended family angrily tell of keeping watch by night to chase the rats from their babies, scrambling for food and bathroom privileges and the frustrations and emotional outbursts that result in part from a lack of privacy.
Whenever they can, mothers and children alike abandon the apartment at 3407 15th St. SE for whatever comfort the city streets provide, never mind the crime, drug abuse and prostitution that is rampant in their community.
"My 12-year-old granddaughter Doria goes to school. I know because the kids tell me, but she won't come home until around midnight when she thinks everyone is asleep," Dozier said. "Then she tip-toes around the children lying on the floor and finds a place to sleep. She stays away, she said, because there is no privacy. I worry about her, but I know how she feels. Sometimes I feel like I'm about to go crazy."
Dozier's neighbors, living in similar conditions, said they share her frustrations and worries about how crowding affects their children They feel confined in a microcosm that community workers say represents the decrepit conditions of much of Southeast Washington, particularly the area south of Good Hope Road SE.
Although crowding figures for that community won't be available until 1980 Census data are compiled, community workers know that an untold number of familes are doubling up with relatives and friends and not telling landlords. Crowding is having a dramatic effect on the level of frustrations within some communities -- particularly Barry Farms, Anacostia and Washington Highlands -- at a time when Southeast is bulging with displaced families from other parts of Washington.
A recent study that analyzes 1977 Census data indicates that poor blacks who are being displaced from Capitol Hill and other central city neighborhoods are apparently moving to low-cost, low-quality housing farther out in the city, such as Southeast Washington, and not to Prince George's County and other suburbs.
Although there is no direct evidence of where poor people from renovated neighborhoods are moving, the Census Bureau data show that Washington had a larger share of the area's poor households in 1977 than it did in 1970.
City officials and community workers are concerned about the short tempers that often accompany over-crowding at a time when unemployment and inflation are causing additional frustrations among low-income youth and young adults.
You'll find that there are three different generations in some of these households, and I'm talking about a one-bedroom apartment," said Attiba Meyers, a housing counselor at the Southeast Neighborhood House.
Jonas Milton, also of the Southeast Neighborhood House, said, "These conditions elevate the level of frustration among family members, destabilize the families and develop a cyclical problem of young kids getting pregnant to go on welfare to supplement the incomes of their families. At age 17, another dependency develops for another generation."
Community workers and city officials say there are signs that indicate that the housing picture in Far Southeast is particularly bleak:
Upwards of 20 percent of the privately owned rental housing stock is overcrowded with more than one family.
About 1,000 apartments south of Good Hope Road SE in Far Southeast Washington are boarded up and those apartments that are available are suffering from rapid deterioration. A report by the Greater Washington Research Center, based on citywide information, indicates that new apartment construction has dwindled drastically in the face of rent control. More than 60,000 apartments citywide are in decline because of deferred maintenance as apartment owners prepare to convert them into condominiums or walk away from them completely.
Public housing units in the city are filled and there is a waiting list of about 5,200 families. City officials said the wait is usually four years. But vacancies are rare for three bedrooms or more, the size apartment Dozier would need.
The city and the federal government have constrained budgets and little money is available to subsidize privately owned apartment buildings or to build new public housing. City officials say most of the available housing funds have been directed at low-income single family houses or public housing improvements.
In January, more than 2,000 people waited in lines for 12 apartment units for which the federal government provides housing subsidies. Many of them had waited in lines hours before the offices, including one in Southeast, opened. They went away angry.
Officials at the city's Rental Accommodations Office say that from 30 to 40 percent of the eviction notices issued each year list overcrowding as one of the violations of the lease agreement.
Community workers say lack of affordable rental housing is compounding the frustrations of young adults who often are unemployed or work in jobs that offer little advancement, not to mention low salaries. The average household income in Anacostia is about $10,000 a year regardless of the size of the family, city officials said. Many families cannot afford to pay more money for better and larger apartments.
"The housing problem is definitely severe," said City Council member Wilhelmina Rolark (D-Ward 8), whose ward includes most of Far Southeast Washington. "About 22 percent of the families here receive public assistance and they have large families. They need three- or four-bedroom units, which are hard to get. I am inundated with calls from people who say the problems are almost unbearable."
"For every 20 people looking for rental apartments, there are units available for three," said Milton of the Southeast Neighborhood House.
Ruth Worthy, of the Far Southeast Community Organization, said "People live in overcrowded conditions because they cannot go anywhere else. I've seen four or five people in efficiencies and two or more generations in a one-bedroom apartment. It's common, believe me."
Overcrowding presents a social dynamic that is seldom considered and is extremely hard to measure. According to Daniel Geller, assistant professor of social and environmental psychology at Georgetown University, one of the effects of crowding is "a feeling of having no way out, a lack of control over their environment and sometimes depression."
"Because of a lack of privacy, they may feel helpless in their environment, and sometimes if they seek to adjust to the situation, they may choose behaviors that we consider not to be positive, such as crime. They don't sit around analyzing their behavior, it's just something that happens," Geller said.
"It's especially disconcerting that in a fiscal crisis, the first things to go are the social programs and jobs programs," Geller said. "When that happens, the system says, 'Yes, there is no way out.' The way they interpret it, it all makes sense."
Dozier's neighbor, Ruby Turner, a mother of five who also cares for two grandchildren, sees how overcrowding affects her family every day.
"It causes argumentss, fights, like, 'Where's my shirt? Who bought the food? Who used my soap?'" Turner said. "The frustrations make people want to take their feelings out on someone else."
Turner's son James, who has to sleep with a two-year-old nephew and his 18-year-old brother Darryl, said, "My sister tried to stab me because I would not let her into the bathroom.
"Too many people live here, but we cannot afford to move," said James, 17, a seventh-grade dropout and the father of a two-month-old son named Joshua. "I think a lot about me getting a job so we can move out of here to something better, but I cannot get one because I don't have education and training.
"The noise gets on my nerves and I have to take a walk to easy my nerves," he said.
For the Turners, Doziers and others, no help is in sight.
"We need help. We've been looking for three-bedroom apartments but there is nothing we can afford or else landlords won't take families on public assistance," said Dozier's daughter, Cookie Bethea, 27. Bethea is not on welfare but is receiving Social Security payments for herself and four children since her husband's death several years ago.
When Dozier and Bethea's younger sisters, brothers, nieces and nephews were evicted from a three-bedroom apartment for nonpayment of rent several years ago, Bethea took them in. Since then, Valerie James Little, 19, homeless and pregnant, has joined them. Little keeps her clothes in a cardboard box in the living room and doesn't know where her baby, expected next week, will sleep.
"I had to take care of them, they're my family and they had nowhere to go," said Bethea, pausing to tell her 10-year-old son Kenneth a "B" average student at Malcolm X Elementary, to go outside to do his homework. The house was too noisy.
He sat on the ground, his foot resting in a rat hole beside the concrete sidewalk. He used a concrete slab behind the house for a writing desk.
"The noise, the overcrowding is nerve-wracking," said Bethea. "My children don't feel like it's their home anymore.
"They say it's grandmother's house," she lamented.