Until the mugging, Diane Dickerson was making it, despite numbers suggesting it was impossible. The numbers are these: monthly rent on the two-bedroom Takoma Park apartment of $460, and $436 a month in public assistance for Dickerson, 34, her 9-year-old son, her 16-year-old daughter, and her daughter's 11-month-old baby.
But with some cash on the side from her son's grandmother, Dickerson was managing to pay the rent. Then, in November, when she had just cashed the monthly check and spent a few dollars of it on diapers for the baby, a mugger grabbed Dickerson's purse outside her apartment.
"There's no way I could make that November rent money up," she said. So the next month, she bought Christmas presents for the family instead of paying the rent. "I just decided we should have a happy Christmas," she said.
The next month, the eviction notice came, giving her one day to get out, she said. Paul, 9, went to stay with his grandmother in the District. Penny, 16, moved in with a friend. And Dickerson and her granddaughter, Sherita, have been on the move, staying first at a friend's room in a boarding house, then at two cheap Silver Spring motels for three nights, and, last week, at Greentree Shelter in Bethesda.
"I've never gone this far down," Dickerson said. "In the last few years, we've had to move five or six times. Either they would go up on the rent or the electric would get too high. But I would always find a place before they kicked us out."
She is sharing a room in the stone building, which formerly housed an orphanage, with seven other women and children.
Subsidized housing does not appear to be an option. "I've been on the Section 8 waiting list for subsidized housing for three or four years," she said.
And Dickerson does not want to move to the District. "I don't want my kids going to D.C. schools," she said. "I wouldn't feel good about my son being outside playing. I know there are better sections, but if you go there you end up paying just as much" as in the suburbs.
Meanwhile, Dickerson's son has been out of school since the eviction. "I talked to him today, he says he misses us, and if I have Sherita, why can't he come stay with us," said Dickerson.
But having Paul at the shelter would require her to spend much of each day taking him on buses to and from his Silver Spring elementary school, and "I need to focus all my attention on trying to get a place," Dickerson said last Friday. "I'm just really feeling kind of bad right now. We're a family all torn apart, and it's just a mess."