The refuse of Washington's recession is chilling in the Family Storage Center, an unmarked brick warehouse off New York Avenue NE that once provided cold storage for tomatoes.
Inside the dimly lit cavern, 35,000 square feet are filled with stacks of mattresses, couches and bureaus topped with inverted chairs, the jettisoned belongings of families evicted from their homes. At a cost to the city of $311,000 a year, the center provides free storage for three months before giving the things to charity.
The center's director, Solomon Dennis, has watched over this mountain of personal property since 1977, and he's seen the changes hard times have brought. These days the center is overloaded, and his phone is constantly ringing with people trying to get extensions on the 90-day limit.
Last year in the District of Columbia, federal marshals scheduled 1,719 more evictions than the 3,894 arranged in 1981. In Fairfax County, 292 evictions were carried out in the year ending last June, an increase of 61 from the previous year. And in Prince George's County, 23,867 eviction notices were served last year, compared to 22,342 the year before and a spokesman estimates sheriff's deputies have evicted twice the number of homeowners as last year.
Three years ago, Dennis says, he began to notice that the calls his trucks were sent out on were no longer confined to the city's poorest neighborhoods. "We're getting the middle class now," he says, shuffling through the pick-up forms that detail income and education level. "We're also getting at least one house per month. It's no longer the one-bedroom apartment in Northeast."
For many in the Washington area the recession has meant the loss of one of the most basic human needs--their homes. While homelessness is not a new problem, hard times have meant more and different people have become its victims. With a wife or husband unemployed, the bills impossible to pay and the landlord demanding action, once prosperous families suddenly find themselves on the street and left with few alternatives outside of moving in with family or friends.
Waiting lists for public housing, always long, have reached new lengths in Prince George's, Fairfax, Arlington, and Montgomery counties as well as the District. "Most families can expect to wait two to two and a half years now," says Alice Barrett, coordinator of Arlington County's federally assisted housing program, a wait that is typical throughout the area.
One housing specialist, Scott Riley of the Council on Governments, estimates there are 33,000 households in and around Washington waiting for public housing or government rent assistance, a record number.
There are public and church-run shelters, but they are few in number and many of the new poor cannot bring themselves to use them. Many suburban areas have no shelters anyway, and homeless people in Prince George's County, for example, are given bus or taxi fare into Washington to seek emergency housing.
Rent supplements, most of it from federal funds, are also available from local governments, but carry stringent income qualifications and the majority of applicants only qualify for one-time grants of $250.
There are other indications of how precarious housing has become in the Washington area. For example:
* Requests for emergency housing from social service offices, church-run homes and public shelters have doubled in the last year in most areas. The District government was forced to open a third men's shelter and has spent $3.3 million to house homeless people, an increase of some $400,000 this year, according to Bruce Glover, a housing specialist for the Commissioner of Social Services. School buildings that had been abandoned for years are now permanent public shelters, crowded and grim.
In Fairfax County, requests for emergency housing tripled in the last year, according to the county department of Housing and Community Planning. In Prince George's, 3,720 people applied for emergency housing in 1982, an increase of 335 from the prior year.
* All local jurisdictions report an increase in families doubling up, in many cases illegally, as rents and mortgages become too much to manage. Children, now married and with families of their own, are moving back into their parents' homes as an economic necessity. "By the time people come to us, they've been living with their relatives for months and are desperate for help," says Barrett.
In addition, homesharing match-up services begun in the last year in every jurisdiction in the area have surpassed all expectations, resulting in more than 1,000 home and apartment-sharing arrangements.
* Local sheriff's offices report an increase in the number of overdue rent notices served last year, and local governments that aid citizens with rents have been flooded with requests. In Arlington County, for example, the commissioner of revenue in 1982 paid $17,967 in rent relief to 206 families, all of whom are looking for work and who have assets making them ineligible for welfare. This is nearly double the $9,418 the county paid for rent relief in 1981.
To those familiar with housing problems, the change in the kinds of people affected is as striking as their increased numbers. When Prince George's deputy Mike Pantazes, 30, serves an eviction notice, the most common response he hears, he says, is, " 'I was laid off from my job.' These are working people, not the normal people we usually have."
"I carry a lot of grief home," he adds. "But I tell myself, if I don't do that, I could be evicted tomorrow."
Tomorrow: The psychic cost