Correction: A previous version of this article mischaracterized statistics on the number of children in D.C. families living below the poverty level. According to census data, 18 percent of all D.C. families with one or two children live below the poverty level, compared with 38 percent with three or four children and 66 percent with five children or more. The article incorrectly described the figures as breaking down, by family size, D.C. families living in poverty; it also misstated the 66 percent figure as 67 percent. This version has been corrected.
In the moments just before sleep and after the shelter staff banged on the door to enforce curfew, Sharisse Baltimore and her children said their prayers.
The four oldest, curled up on small cots squeezed together in a row, always asked for “safety-ness, happiness and health.” In the fall, Baltimore added something else to the list. She wished for a subsidized housing voucher so her family could move into their own home. Last Friday, that happened.
A shortage of affordable housing for larger families with four or more children is a big factor behind crowded conditions at the District’s main family homeless shelter in Southeast Washington. The shelter has been filled to capacity this winter, with more than 900 people, including a record 600 children some nights.
Such families stay far longer than average in the converted rooms of the abandoned D.C. General Hospital, creating a bottleneck at a shelter initially intended to provide only temporary respite from the cold. One mother of 13 — five of whom lived with her in the shelter — was there for more than a year.
D.C. Department of Human Services officials say the rapidly gentrifying city has lost more than half of its affordable housing in the past decade. That makes it difficult to find an affordable house or apartment big enough for larger families, even with government help, they say.
“It’s always been more difficult for larger families, but it’s more acute now because prices are more expensive than they were even a year ago,” said Fred Swan, the agency’s family services administrator.
For that reason, large families were among the priority groups eligible for 250 rental assistance vouchers, for which the city allocated $4 million in June. But progress has been slow in finding accommodations. To date, just about half the vouchers have been given out.
City agencies have made finding larger homes a priority. The search is hampered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s federal limits on rents for subsidized housing, which are $1,890 for three bedrooms and $2,374 for four bedrooms in this region, city officials say.
Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) says he wants to allocate $100 million to create or build 10,000 affordable housing units in the coming months. The effort, details of which will be released next month, will include a combination of subsidized housing and renovated or newly built homes and apartments, some of which will benefit the city’s poorest residents.
“We’re trying to step up our efforts to get families quickly rehoused and and create more housing options,” Gray said, noting that the city spent more than $100 million on homeless services in the current budget.
Family homelessness in the city, up 74 percent since the economic downturn, has continued to increase, even as it has stagnated or dropped in neighboring jurisdictions. In addition to the nearly 600 children at D.C. General, 500 more are in overflow hotel rooms and other shelters, according to the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.
In recent days, there was more bad news. The number of homeless children in the District’s public and charter schools tops 3,300, up from 2,400 in 2009-10, according the State Superintendent of Education’s office.
Advocates say that in a city flush with millions from speed cameras and sales taxes and near-
record reserves, more needs to be done.
“This is a solvable crisis,” said Marta Beresin, staff attorney for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “We could end homelessness; we just need the political will of politicians and the funding to do it.”
Nearby Fairfax County has had some success combatting the problem. It increased housing and prevention assistance. Fairfax also created a locator network of real estate experts who more quickly get families out of emergency shelters and into their own homes.
Advocates have been particularly critical of conditions at D.C. General, where in recent days residents have endured a lack of cribs, heat loss in some rooms, and, according to reports, infestations of mice and bed bugs. D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) has said he plans to hold a hearing Thursday on conditions at the shelter.
“When I walked in for the first time, I was in a state of shock,” said Sheryl Brissett Chapman, executive director of the National Center for Children and Families, which runs an activity program on the property. “It’s kind of hidden between the morgue and the jail. . . . What are you really saying when you usher those children into this environment? These are deeply disturbing messages.”
Rising poverty, unemployment and a lack of housing options among single parents who are heads of households are driving the city’s problem, experts say. The vast majority of parents living in D.C. General are single and female, according to the Department of Human Services.
Larger families are especially hard-hit. In the District, as nationwide, the percentage of families in poverty grows with the number of children, according to the Census. In the District, 18 percent of all families with one or two children live below the poverty level, compared with 38 percent with three or four children and 66 percent with five children or more.
Christina Jeter, 48, worked as a loan officer as her family grew to include 13 children with different fathers. Her youngest child is 19 months. Despite her growing brood, Jeter managed to make it work on her own until she was laid off in late 2011. She and her five youngest children ended up in the shelter in January 2012.
“It’s the economy,” Jeter said. “I set out to have my children. You just have to work and work hard.”
For Baltimore, a “spiral” of choices and circumstances landed her and four of her five children on D.C. General’s doorstep last year.
She was a single mother of one in 2000 when she gave up a good job as an administrative assistant at Georgetown University to take care of her mother after a stroke, she said. For the next decade, as Baltimore served as caregiver for her aging parents, she had four children with her on-again off-again boyfriend, Anthony Shorts, a high school classmate.
By last winter, both her parents had died and she and her children were bunking in a friend’s living room, Baltimore said. When she was unable to find even a one-bedroom apartment she could afford, she ended up in the city’s shelter system, first in a hotel and then in D.C. General.
By then she reunited with Shorts, who moved in with the family and is helping support them again with a job in construction. But shortly after, she realized she was pregnant again.
“I was so depressed,” she recalled, feeding a bottle to 4-month-old Shayla.
The family’s small room at D.C. General was crowded with cots, baby paraphernalia and stuffed animals. “I’m 42 years old and having a baby in a shelter? I have to be a fool. I’m too old for this.”
Baltimore learned in December that her family would be getting one of the new vouchers. She said that with a place to live, she can begin seriously looking for a new job.
“I broke down. Finally, finally, you know what I’m saying?” she recalled. “My prayers have been answered, and we can get ourselves together and move on, move up and use this as a stepping stone.”
Last Friday, her family moved into a rowhouse in Northeast Washington, four bedrooms with hardwood floors, a pretty archway in the living room and big yard in the back. It’s the only house on the street with a white picket fence.
When they first saw the house, the children ran excitedly from room to room, picking out which would be theirs. Baltimore was eyeing the kitchen, already planning her first big family dinner. She was thinking of roasted chicken, collard greens, mashed potatoes and sweet corn, something close to Thanksgiving.