Delancia Browning, left, a vocational development specialist, listens to a client during the interview process at the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center in Northeast Washington. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The young mother said she had nowhere to go.

She told Delancia Browning she stayed with her mother the night before, but their arguments became overwhelming. Her boyfriend had abused her. She had been “so depressed she couldn’t think of being happy” and ran out of Prozac. Meanwhile, her 6-year-old scooted around her in an office chair, holding a half-empty bag of Tootsie Rolls.

“I don’t have nowhere to sleep, and it’s getting cold,” said the woman, 24, whose name is being withheld because she is a domestic-violence victim. “I need help.”

Browning is a development specialist at the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center. The center moved into a bigger space in Northeast Washington this fall to accommodate the city’s growing number of homeless families. The space gives case managers from different departments more room to collaborate to troubleshoot families’ problems.

As the temperatures plunged into the 20s on Tuesday and the city called its first cold emergency of the season, the noise at the center increased with the sounds of infants, crying as their young mothers searched for ways to keep warm.

Dedra Baxter, a social-service assistant, looks for a client's file at the resource center. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The task will probably get harder. The city expects 16 percent more homeless families this year. Yet there are fewer spaces in its main shelter in the old D.C. General hospital, and the budget has allocated no money to place families in motels. Meanwhile, officials are searching the city for a location to create another family shelter to deal with the overflow.

In the meantime, staffers such as Browning keep working to find alternatives to admitting families into the shelter system. They try to ensure that the families are taking advantage of all of the social services available to them and that they have exhausted the list of relatives and friends with whom they can stay.

And they probe to discover what is at the root of their homelessness. If they can address that problem, Browning said, perhaps the family will not need shelter from the city at all.

“Where have you stayed before?” Browning asked.

“A safe house. My sister. A friend. My foster mom. My mom. Place to place,” she said.

“Do you have any substance-abuse issues?” Browning asked.

“I drink socially,” the woman said. She paused. “I guess you can say I’m an alcoholic.”

“We can get you some help because there’s a specialist with the Department of Behavioral Health in the back,” Browning told her.

Browning stared at a computer, looking at an electronic file that tracked all of the woman’s interactions with the city’s social-services agencies. The woman receives governmental assistance, including food stamps. She had been assigned to a contractor to learn job skills but had not met with them. Browning asked why.

“I didn’t even know I had been assigned a vendor,” she said. “I don’t have a phone.”

“Well, we send the notices by mail,” Browning told her before verifying the address on file.

“That’s my boyfriend’s house” — the home of her abuser, the woman explained. She had stayed away from that house ever since she left.

“I want to work. Believe me — I’m a good worker,” she said. “I just don’t feel like I can go to work, because I’m homeless.”

As Browning continued speaking with the woman, a specialist who works with the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness began calling the victim’s relatives. She called the woman’s sister, who said she had no room in her home. She called the woman’s mother. As she talked to her, Browning’s teammate scribbled “30 days” on a legal pad.

Browning and her colleague smiled. They told the woman she could move back in with her mother for a month, but her mother wanted her to be in the house at 9:30 p.m. They thought they had found a solution. The woman cried.

“I don’t even have to do nothing to get her to start yelling at me,” the woman said, grabbing tissues to dry her eyes. “She’s the reason I left home at 14. My mother don’t care about me. She’ll just put me out again, and I’ll be back here.”

“Maybe we can talk to her,” Browning said. “Is it okay if we talk to her to try and see what’s wrong?”

“Go ahead,” the woman said. “It won’t matter.”

The three walked into a conference room and called the mother, putting her on speaker phone.

Her mother began to curse. She yelled at her daughter about getting the city to interfere. She accused her of drinking too much and wasting money on a man who did not love her.

“I don’t want to see my daughter and my grandson on the street, but on the same token, you have to help out” in the house, her mother said. “You’re not on my lease, and I’m going to help you and put my 4-year-old son in danger? If they put me out, then I have nowhere to go. Where am I going to go?”

Browning looked at the woman, who said nothing but continued to cry.

On the phone, her mother was crying, too: “How are we going to eat? There’s not enough food right now.”

Browning jumped in: “Now, we are going to work with your daughter on a plan. If she were able to contribute to buy some toiletries, do you think that would help? Would you want to have her back?”

“Yes,” the woman’s mother said.

“Okay, we can work this all out,” Browning responded. “She’ll be responding to us biweekly, and we’re going to help put her on a path to find housing. We’ll relieve some of the burden, and we’ll work collectively to help her.”

“Okay, okay,” the mother said.

“Okay,” the daughter responded as Browning hung up the phone.

Browning and the young woman sat in silence.

“My mother stays angry,” she said.

“Well, we’re going to need you to hustle for work then,” Browning told her. “During the day, if you’re out looking for work, then you don’t have to have those interactions with your mom.”

“That’s what I’m going to do,” she said.

Browning and the other specialist gave her gift cards for Wal-Mart and Giant to help with food and toiletries. They sent her to the mental-health specialist to help her find treatment for her depression. Browning returned to her desk, where a 24-year-old mother of five was waiting for them.

“I slept in my car last night,” she told Browning. “Can you help me out? Because I’m scared.”