Sierra Oliver, 2, fell asleep after having lunch with her father, Andre Foster, in the lobby at the Days Inn motel. Sierra is living at the motel, which is being used as temporary housing for the family. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Andre Foster and Shamicka Oliver liken their tiny motel room to a prison. They sleep, along with three of their kids, on two beds. They eat their meals on the beds, too, Styrofoam cartons laid open, curtains drawn. The guards tell them to keep their kids inside. And every night, around 9 p.m., the guards come by to count heads. ¶ “The kids have to stand up for the count,” Foster said on a recent afternoon while the three kids — ages 10, 8 and 2 — huddled on a bed watching TV. “It’s not healthy,” he added. “Mentally, physically or spiritually.” ¶ Four months ago, life was not like this. Two parents, four kids and the children’s ­great-grandmother lived under one roof in a three-bedroom apartment in Southeast Washington. The oldest daughter, 13, was about to graduate from middle school. The family was happy, even if Foster and Oliver’s janitorial jobs and food stamps carried them only as far as the next month’s rent. ¶ But the family’s fortunes turned on a single night, when an upstairs neighbor’s boyfriend set fire to the entire building during a domestic dispute. ¶ Since taking office in January, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has pledged $145 million to build more affordable housing and combat an enduring homelessness crisis that has bedeviled the nation’s capital for years. But Foster and Oliver’s desperate journey illustrates how entrenched the problem remains.

Their story is also a testament to how easy it is to fall into homelessness in a city that has seen rapidly rising costs and a growing gap between rich and poor. Even in summer, when shelter beds tend to free up and the threat of hypothermia disappears, and even in a city where addressing homelessness is a top priority, it can still take months for a working family to find a temporary place to live — let alone a permanent home.

“It’s not from not paying your bills, or not having structure in your life or doing drugs,” said Foster, who continues to view the situation as a bad dream. “We’re people who are actually going to work every day, paying our taxes, trying to take care of our family.”

‘I was so desperate’

For Foster and Oliver, the nightmare started late April 4, when they awoke and saw smoke engulfing their three-bedroom apartment. In a panic, the parents scrambled to lift their four children and Oliver’s elderly grandmother out of a ground-floor window to safety.

The three other families in the building already had government rent assistance through Section 8 housing, Foster said, and that helped them find new shelter after the fire. That Foster’s family was paying market rate rent ironically made finding a new home more difficult, according to the couple.

Andre Foster is frustrated with the conditions he and his family live in as they stay at the Days Inn. The family lost its home in a fire and have been housed by the city at the motel. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

In the aftermath, it was the Red Cross, not the city, that first came to their aid, picking them up and placing them in a hotel for three days.

Then the District’s Office of the Tenant Advocate swept in, covering an additional two weeks at the hotel, the couple said. And then the District’s Crime Victims Compensation Program gave the family a few thousand dollars to cover three more weeks at a $200-a-night hotel on New York Avenue NE, Foster said.

The couple had sent their oldest daughter and Oliver’s grandmother to stay with Oliver’s mother. Her one-bedroom apartment couldn’t accommodate any more people, and when the hotel money ran out, the family panicked.

What followed: two months of phone calls, paperwork and bus trips to and from the District’s central intake center for homeless families at the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center. They also traveled to the city’s troubled emergency shelter for homeless families at the old D.C. General Hospital, where Oliver and Foster pleaded for a space to house themselves and their children.

They called LaRuby May, their new Ward 8 council member, repeatedly. They bombarded one of the mayor’s community outreach specialists with calls, too.

All of it amounted to what Foster and Oliver described in frustration as city officials giving them “the runaround.”

At Virginia Williams, an official told Oliver that they couldn’t place the family because the weather wasn’t cold enough, Oliver said. Then she was told to find a relative to take the kids off her hands so that she and Foster could stay in a shelter for adults.

Sierra Oliver, 2, eats in the lobby at the Days Inn motel. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

“And then one day [the official] told me to go out and find a shelter that would take me, just take my paperwork. So I was so desperate, I went to D.C. General,” Oliver said.

D.C. General told her she needed a referral, and Oliver returned to Virginia Williams in dismay.

In the meantime, Foster said he had to give up his job to take care of the kids during the day, and for three weeks the couple slept on the streets, 2-year-old Sierra sometimes sleeping with them; the others crowded temporarily into the cramped apartment with Oliver’s mother.

“I never thought that it would be so hard for working families in D.C. to have to go to this extreme to find housing and have to sleep on the street,” Foster said. “They say they have all these resources. But these resources aren’t working.”

Arduous placement process

Dora Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Department of Human Services, which manages the city’s homeless services, said families that show up at Virginia Williams submit first to an assessment to determine “the level of need.”

An automated message at the center instructs families to bring picture IDs, Social Security cards, birth certificates and “proof of homelessness” to the assessment.

“Shelter is often not the most effective intervention for families, and every effort is made to divert families from shelter by securing a safe, stable and appropriate housing situation — often with family members and friends — in addition to providing other supports and services to help the family achieve and maintain stability in housing,” Taylor said.

If a delay occurs, it could be because officials say that a family has an alternative place to stay, she said.

It wasn’t until June 26, 83 days after they lost their home in the fire, when the family finally caught a break. The city placed the family in a room at a Days Inn on a busy stretch of highway near the city’s far northeast border.

The family says that the breakthrough came as the result of Oliver’s tearful final phone call to the mayor’s Ward 8 outreach specialist, Markus Batchelor — not from navigating the District’s bureaucracy.

Batchelor did not respond to phone messages.

The motel was already crowded with homeless families; according to city officials, 305 of the District’s 671 homeless families reside in motels, although Taylor would not say which ones. And some of the homeless residents at the Days Inn told the couple that they had been there for more than a year.

The District has amplified its security protocol for homeless families since a girl disappeared from D.C. General last year. At the Days Inn, it means that guards come around for a head count every night and families have to get permission for any of their children to spend the night elsewhere.

‘I never knew it was this bad’

Taylor confirmed that department staffers conduct “curfew checks on a nightly basis” as well as hourly rounds at the motels from 5:30 p.m. to 8 a.m. every day.

“Children are expected to stay in shelter nightly unless otherwise approved by a case manager,” she said. And families are “encouraged to limit visitors to court-appointed service providers or case managers.”

A Washington Post photographer who tried to accompany Foster to the family’s room recently was turned away by guards.

Guards have also prohibited the children from playing outside, the couple and neighboring families said.

“You can’t keep your kids cooped up in the hotel room all day long,” Foster said. There is no outlet here for them — nothing “to take their minds off of the environment that they’re in.”

A few doors down, Tiffany Phifer tried to keep order as her five children bounced around another room with two beds where the lamp shades were off-kilter and the TV blared in the middle of the day. She said they had been there since November.

Oliver said she has grown deeply depressed since the start of the family’s ordeal. She also worries about safety. In their first four nights, she said, the police came twice — once because “a girl got beat up” in the parking lot. D.C. police confirmed that they responded five times during that period for various incidents, including two reported assaults, one domestic disturbance and a report of gunfire.

The couple worry about their children, who have trouble sleeping together in one bed, and they question whether the motel is violating the fire code by having so many people in one room.

Last month, they struggled to scrounge up the funds to buy their oldest daughter a graduation dress and a trip to her ­middle-school prom so that she wouldn’t “feel embarrassed about the situation,” Oliver said.

She and Foster said the 13-year-old has taken the instability the hardest. “That’s why I didn’t bring her here yet,” Oliver said as the three younger children sat on the beds on a recent afternoon, picking through the spaghetti and meatballs that had been provided through the homeless program.

They said the city had promised employment counseling and other help so they could get out. They are still waiting for it to come.

“I never knew it was this bad,” Oliver said. “A lot of people don’t look at it until they’re in it — it’s sad to say — but there are a lot of people who are homeless.”