Tiera Williams and her four children dodge cars on a winter evening as they cross the parking lot of the Days Inn to the Washington motel room the children call “Mommy’s house.”
“Hold his hand. I told you to hold his hand,” the 25-year-old single mother urges her oldest, Ariyanna. The 5-year-old with cornrows and pink barrettes grabs the hand of her 3-year-old brother, Amari, and they walk just ahead of their mother, who carries a newborn baby covered in a blanket in a bundle against her chest. With her right hand, Williams reaches down to guide her 1-year-old, Isaiah, bundled in a bubble coat and frog hat and running fast on little legs to keep up.
They pass the Checkers and the Dunkin’ Donuts on a busy, battered stretch of New York Avenue in Northeast Washington and walk alongside the black iron fence that encircles the motel pool covered by a green tarp. People at the Days Inn — one of at least 12 motels being used by the city to house 730 homeless families this winter — lean over the balcony that overlooks the courtyard lit by the December glow of yellow lights.
They occupy a hidden world of desperation and poverty mixed with every-other-day maid service, free WiFi, continental breakfast in the lobby, and lunch and dinner in the 170-room motel’s banquet room.
Little is known about the conditions at the Days Inn and other motels in Washington and Maryland being used to house homeless families. Like the shelter for homeless families at the former D.C. General Hospital, they are officially off-limits to reporters. And there has been minimal information provided by city officials about the welfare of 1,300 poor children living in such cramped quarters with struggling, mostly single parents.
Williams and her children pass mothers who sit in doorways, half inside their rooms, half outside, as they watch restless children ride bicycles in circles in the parking lot. A woman in a pink headscarf has pulled a nightstand out of her motel room and is yelling something incomprehensible at someone inside the room.
“I don’t know what is wrong with her,” says Williams, who agreed to let a reporter and a photographer follow her. “After being here for too long, you are going to end up going crazy. Because it is so small. So many people packed into one room.”
Last year, there were 440 police calls from the Days Inn, says Nicole Chapple, assistant director for external affairs and policy at the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency.
Williams has witnessed scary fights between residents and tries to keep to herself. It’s safer that way, she says.
She opens the door to her unit, ushering her children inside a space that she describes as “the size of two jail cells.” The decor is pleasant enough, with maroon carpeting, wood paneled headboards and a television in an armoire near a bathroom vanity.
They’ve been living here since August when Williams — then six months pregnant and unemployed with no place to go — called the city’s homeless hotline.
It is in this room that Williams parents four children, keeping them in order, keeping their things in order, stacked in corners, on top of the television, on the bathroom vanity and under beds. It is in this room that Ariyanna does her kindergarten work sheets. And it is in this room that Williams went into labor on Nov. 7 and returned afterward with newborn Quintin.
Now she lays the baby on the double bed closest to the bathroom. The other children sit on the other bed next to the window overlooking the pool.
Williams dumps bags of groceries on the motel room desk. In the mini refrigerator, she stacks yogurt, apples, oranges and a roasted chicken they will have for dinner that night. She uses her food stamps to buy meals because she doesn’t like eating the pasta, casseroles, chicken, hot dogs and other dishes the city provides at the motel.
“The meat,” she says, “is questionable.”
Stuffed animals and other toys are stacked on the wall heater, on an upholstered chair in the corner and in a box near the door. It is a challenging environment for a woman who describes herself as a neat freak and an obsessive-compulsive organizer.
She turns to 3-year-old Amari. “Why are you jumping up and down?”
She wants 1-year-old Isaiah to stop digging in the grocery bags on the floor. She wants Amari to stop whining and “acting like a baby.” Quintin begins to wail on the bed. She asks 5-year-old Ariyanna to get the newborn’s pacifier.
“Being in a cramped space like this is not good,” Williams says. “You have to be really organized here. Or you will go crazy. Your kids will go crazy.”
She tells Amari, “Go over there!” But, really, there is no place for him to go. He climbs back on the double bed and lies on a pillow covered with a red “Cars” cartoon character and on sheets featuring “Doc McStuffins.” He starts whining again for a snack.
“Whenever I come in this room, it all comes back,” his mother says. “How did I get here? What have I been doing all these years? Where did I go wrong?”
She knows that she and the children are better off at the Days Inn than on the streets or at D.C. General’s dilapidated shelter. “But I have to keep saying, ‘I’m going to get out of this situation.’ ”
Williams was 2, she says, when she and her siblings were taken from their mother, a home health aide who was gone so much that she was accused of neglect. Williams didn’t see her again for 17 years. At the time, the family was living in South Carolina, where her father had been imprisoned, she was told, for murder.
The children were put on a train to Virginia, where an older cousin, Deborah Jackson, and her husband, Bernard Jackson, took in 2-year-old Tiera while a great-aunt raised two of her older siblings.
“She was a blessing,” says Bernard Jackson, who became the sole parent after Deborah died when Williams was just 8.
Losing her birth mother and then her adoptive mother haunted Williams, she says. At Fairfax High School, she took as many art classes as she could, immersing herself in painting.
“There was a man’s face that I sketched over and over again,” she says. She now believes it was the face of her birth father, whom she has seen only on Facebook. He died of heart problems last year, she says.
After graduating from Fairfax in 2008, Williams worked at a Burlington Coat Factory store and then as a waitress at a Chili’s restaurant. She was 19 when she met the man who would become her daughter’s father. She moved to the District to be with him. But the relationship, she says, was controlling and abusive. She left him when her daughter was 4 months old and spent several months at two shelters before moving into an apartment in Southeast Washington.
Much the same thing happened again in August when she left the father of her three other children because they were arguing all the time. “You think you’re stable, then [stuff] happens,” she says.
She couldn’t stay with her adoptive father, who lives in Alexandria in a one-bedroom apartment and recently had a stroke. Nor could she stay with her sister, who lives in Fairfax with another cousin, she says. She bounced from friend to friend before calling the homeless hotline.
And that’s how she and the children wound up at the Days Inn, where a sign taped to the front door reads, “100 percent Identity Check” and a reservation clerk says the motel is booked solid.
The Days Inn manager declined to talk about the motel’s contract to house homeless families. But the residents are required to abide by strict rules. No smoking, drinking, drugs or profanity are permitted, according to a rules sheet. “Yelling and screaming by residents or visitors is not allowed. Residents are not allowed in each other’s rooms.”
Everyone must obey a 9:30 p.m. curfew Sundays through Thursdays and an 11 p.m. curfew Fridays and Saturdays. Those capable of working “are required to actively seek employment every week and to provide documentation of their employment search.” And residents are required to meet with case coordinators to develop a “housing exit plan.”
Williams is still waiting for hers in a city where rents have soared and affordable housing options have shrunk.
The District has been placing homeless families in motels ever since city voters passed Initiative 17, a 1984 law that guarantees overnight shelter to the homeless during hypothermia season. In the years that followed, the number of families seeking shelter exploded.
Then, in March 1988, two babies died at the notoriously decrepit Capitol City Inn on New York Avenue; one child from meningitis and the other from pneumonia. The following year, an 18-month-old boy was killed and two women were injured when a fire broke out at the motel. The ensuing furor forced then-Mayor Marion Barry (D) to move every family out of the Capitol City Inn by the end of 1989.
But the problem of where to place parents and children in crisis has continued to plague city officials — even as they’ve vowed to shut down the decaying D.C. General shelter. At one point in 2014, then-Mayor Vincent Gray (D) tried to house families in two recreation centers — a solution quickly rejected by the courts and the D.C. Council.
Gray’s successor, Muriel E. Bowser (D), has taken a much different approach, accepting applications to shelter families not just on freezing nights, but any day of the year.
The result: There were 730 homeless families living in the Days Inn and at least 11 other motels, including 1,300 children, according to a recent night census. An additional 250 families are being housed at D.C. General.
“That number is very high for us,” acknowledges Laura Green Zeilinger, executive director of the D.C. Department of Human Services. She would not disclose how much the District pays per night for the motel rooms but says the city has budgeted about $15 million this year for them.
The goal is to get families out of motels and shelters into transitional housing as quickly as possible, she says. But in the second half of 2015, an average of only 68 families per month were being moved into subsidized apartments. Not enough landlords are willing to participate in the District’s rapid-rehousing program, Zeilinger says.
In recent weeks, the city has resorted to putting hundreds of families in Maryland motels, where it is more difficult to provide meals and other help to parents and children.
The Bowser administration has provided minimal information about the motels. There have been no site visits by D.C. Council committees with oversight on homelessness and no review of the welfare of children living in them, even though there are twice as many children in motels as there are at the much more scrutinized D.C. General.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) acknowledges that he has never visited one of the motels. In the short term, he does not think there is anything that can be done about the ballooning number of families being housed in them. Bowser’s plan to get more families into transitional housing, he says, “has not had enough time” to work.
Zeilinger also defends the use of motels as necessary and vital.
“What is really important is we don’t have families unsafe and unsheltered,” Zeilinger says. “Motels are not ideal, but we have an affordable-housing crisis in the District. We are not going to overcome that when people don’t have a safe place for children to lay their heads at night.”
On school days, Williams’s alarm goes off at 6 a.m. She showers and dresses while the children are still sleeping. Then she wakes them for breakfast and the trip to Ariyanna’s school in Southeast Washington.
“My child will not miss school,” Williams declares. When they were sent to the Days Inn, she didn’t want Ariyanna to switch schools. She wanted to maintain some measure of consistency.
So every school day, Williams packs up the four children and takes a two-hour bus ride across town to get Ariyanna to kindergarten.
The children dress in the clothes that Williams laid out the night before. One recent morning, Ariyanna’s hair is pulled in cornrows and tied at the ends with blue and white barrettes. The girl, who loves Disney’s “Doc McStuffins,” pulls on a pale pink jacket and her backpack with the face of a puppy on the flap.
They leave the hotel room at 6:59 and walk along the breezeway beside the pool to the lobby where other mothers and children are having breakfast.
They pass a little girl in a pink jacket sitting with her mom at a table near the lobby door, finishing a bowl of cold cereal and her homework. They pass another girl filling a motel room ice bucket with frosted flakes.
Williams grabs the hand of Isaiah and commands Ariyanna to take Amari’s hand as they push open the double glass doors.
“I hate this parking lot,” Williams says, picking up the 1-year-old. They walk under the train bridge. The baby is on her chest; Isaiah on her right hip. A train roars overhead.
Amari, the inquisitive preschooler with deep black pools for eyes, announces, “That train is going to New York.”
Williams and the children cross the street and wait at a bus shelter advertising Svedka vodka.
The bus shelter is crowded with other mothers from the motel taking their children to schools across town. The B2 bus arrives, and Williams ushers the children onboard.
The bus wends its way through the city, with one stop at D.C. General, where Williams spent a few hated months the first time she was homeless.
For many, the building conjures up the memory of 8-year-old Relisha Rudd, who lived at D.C. General before she vanished nearly two years ago in the company of a janitor who killed his wife and then himself. On this day, in fact, the police launch another search for Relisha at a construction site not far from the Days Inn, but, once again, they turn up nothing.
At Martin Luther King Avenue SE, Williams and the kids get off the bus and stand at the corner just as their second bus across the street leaves. “This happens all the time,” Williams sighs. “We get here just as that bus is pulling away.”
About 20 minutes later, another bus arrives, and they ride it to drop off Ariyanna, 20 minutes after the start of school.
“The teachers understand,” Williams says. Inside, they pass a hallway sign announcing, “Attendance Matters.”
Once Ariyanna is settled, Williams crosses the street with Amari, Isaiah and Quintin and waits again at another bus stop for the two-hour trip back to the Days Inn.
The motel is a landscape of monotony and isolation. Two mothers walk out the lobby doors and sit on the dry fountain in the circular drive and flick cigarettes. A man pushing a baby stroller joins them. The baby inside cries unrelentingly.
At night, the parking lot fills with diners on their way to Panda Gourmet, a Chinese restaurant attached to the Days Inn that has received rave reviews from food critics.
When Williams went into labor here in November, she called the motel’s front desk for an ambulance to Providence Hospital. Then she woke up Ariyanna, Amari and Isaiah and got them dressed.
The father of her youngest children, Patrick Purnell, took care of them while she gave birth, she says. He declined to be interviewed for the article. Williams says he doesn’t pay child support but has helped by buying diapers, food and coats.
Back in the room after dropping Ariyanna at school, Williams leaves her door slightly ajar to let in fresh air. A boy pushes it open.
“Where is Ariyanna?” asks Akelles Taylor, 8, who’s in second grade.
“She’s at school, where you should be,” Williams replies.
Just then, Akelles’s mother, Tamarisque Taylor, enters the room. Taylor, who’s 24, knew Williams through relatives before they both landed at the Days Inn.
Because they’d met before, they trust each other. That is a trust they do not extend to other residents.
“I don’t associate with people here,” Taylor says. “I just had someone throw clothes in the dryer with my son’s baby clothes. I threw the underwear in the trash.”
Taylor, her hair pinned with metal hair clips, walks to the laundry room. She carries her 5-month-old baby, Jayce, in her left arm. Akelles, sucking a Gogurt stick, walks next to her, passing motel doors wrapped like Christmas presents.
“That’s what you call too comfortable,” Taylor says, motioning to the door. “You don’t want to decorate like you live here. You want to get out.”
In a matter of days, she would be leaving for a two-bedroom subsidized apartment in Southeast Washington. And she couldn’t move there soon enough.
“I started to feel very depressed when I came here,” she says, but she tried to hide it from her son.
Standing in the laundry room, she lists a life of regrets. “The last grade I attended was eighth grade. I got pregnant when I was 15 years old,” Taylor says. “My grandmother never enrolled me in high school. I guess she thought I didn’t want to go. But I went to eighth grade with him in my belly.”
She says the school system never came looking for her. “I feel like the school system failed me. My family failed me. But I can’t blame my situation on them,” she says.
She dumps her dry clothes in a trash bag and drags the bag with one arm — the baby in the other — across the parking lot and up the black metal stairs to Room 264.
Inside, she lays the baby on the bed and tucks away folded clothes in the corner of the room. “I try to keep it clean,” she says.
A few minutes later, Williams, whose children are napping, stops by for a quick visit.
They watch a few minutes of the television show “Cribs.” Boxing champion Manny Pacquiao is showing off one of his houses with its pools and gleaming floors and fully stocked refrigerators.
“Look at his house,” Taylor says, sitting in an upholstered chair near the window. “I want that crib right there.” She laughs. “That joint is laid out. It got swimming pools. He got the crib — eighteen rooms!” They laugh and dream.
“What is that called — infinity pools?” Williams says. “I want one of those.”
Back in her room, a cold rain beats against the window. Night falls, and Williams pulls open the curtains. At least she and the children can look outside.
“This is Mommy’s house,” 3-year-old Amari announces.
Ariyanna whispers to her mother, wondering when they will move out of the motel. “Do you remember my room with the vanity and the butterfly carpet?” the 5-year-old asks.
“Yes,” Williams tells her, “I remember.”
Aaron Davis contributed to this report.