A string of shabby motor courts lines Route 1 between Alexandria and Mount Vernon. Once an evening's stop for the weary tourist, the motels now house the homeless of Northern Virginia.
Four, five, even six people live in tiny rooms that constitute the only emergency housing in the immediate area outside of the 10-bed Mondloch House, a church-run home in Alexandria.
"People with three or four children can't afford a two-bedroom apartment, which the housing code requires," says Sharon Kelso, coordinator of volunteers and fund-raising for United Community Ministries, an organization of 22 of Alexandria's 32 churches. "Yet the regulations will allow them to live all in one room because it's a motel."
Five members of one family have called Room 14 of the Suburban Motel home since November, when they were evicted from their rented Alexandria home after Margaret, 29, was laid off from her job at Woolco and they fell behind on the rent. Her husband, John, 30, still works for a Washington office supply firm, but his $4.50-an-hour salary isn't sufficient to pay for a deposit, a month's rent and their back heating bills.
They pay $106 a week for the room. Their belongings are neatly stacked in boxes on the floor; an ironing board and hot plate are plugged into a ceiling socket. The only government help the family gets is the free lunch and breakfast the children, ages 6, 9, and 10 are receiving at the nearby Hybla Valley school, help that was given after the children went hungry for three days in mid-November when the family ran out of food.
"We stayed at a shelter right after we were evicted and I cried," Margaret says. "The children came into contact with all sorts of street people. You hear all this cursing and vulgar language. Although we're in close quarters, this is better for them. We've made it a home, cleaned up the roaches."
The children, who play in the motel parking lot with other children of families living month-by-month in the motel, do miss their old home, she says. "But they understand."
John says the family is getting help from their church in trying to locate an affordable apartment. "We're trying to get on our feet again. It's just taking us longer than we thought."