Zaire Adams, 1, sleeps in his car seat while friends play around him in the parking garage of a motel on New York Avenue. (Petula Dvorak/The Washington Post)
Columnist

“One whole potato. And you can mash it up a little, so it’s not just a baked potato.”

“Those Jack Daniel’s ribs. The kind they have at Walmart.”

“And mug cakes. That’s the closest you get to any kind of a cake that tastes homemade.”

They are the best-tasting things the circle of moms standing outside in their parkas agreed you can make for Thanksgiving dinner in a small microwave, when you’re living in a motel converted into a homeless shelter.

These motels along New York Avenue are packed with families this week. Every week, actually.

And kids are zipping by on scooters and running on foot playing tag in their cavernous, secret playground where the moms meet, too.

“Wait! Quiet! Stop!” the lookout in a puffy jacket says, when he thinks he sees a security guard around the corner. They’re not supposed to be playing there, in the motel parking garage. They’re not allowed to play anywhere, actually.

The 1,000 children in those motel rooms haven’t traveled here to see family, then take in the sights of the nation’s capital. They are homeless and occupying nearly all the affordable motel space there is in Washington — a total of 422 families, according to the city’s census reports.

And tourists wonder why the average hotel room in the District is $300.

And locals may wonder where all the families went now that the city finally closed the shameful onetime hospital that functioned as the area’s largest family homeless shelter for a decade.

City officials cut the ribbon earlier this fall on a beautiful new family shelter in Northwest Washington, one of seven planned across the city. Smaller, new facilities scattered across the wards, concentrated in their services, less shaming and dangerous than the horrific abandoned hospital that shared a campus with the jail, the methadone clinic and the old morgue. Yes.

But those shelters are still being built. The Kennedy, the one that opened in Northwest right before the election, houses 42 families. Remember, that’s only 10 percent of the 422 families living in the motels. Other shelters are still facing Nimby opposition and construction delays. So while they wait for new shelter or permanent housing, the motels are where many of the families will stay.

And Thanksgiving is one of those times that it really hits home, their situation.

For Thanksgiving, they get individual boxed meals delivered downstairs.

“It’s not real Thanksgiving. It’s like jail Thanksgiving,” one of the moms said. “Thanksgiving isn’t just a piece of turkey in a Styrofoam box.”

It’s a gut punch for the moms because this is when they imagined cooking their family recipes, spreading out the giant table, adding a card table for the kids, who are out in the yard playing.

Not this hellscape in a dirty parking garage.

They had it once, Brian Cousins remembers.

For a few months, 9-year-old Brian, his mom and his four siblings lived in an apartment.

“It was called Eagle’s Crossing,” said Brian, who is round-faced and sweet. “And I played outside, and I had a friend named Coco. It was the best time.”

He’s been in and out of the motel — the worn, tattered Quality Inn on New York Avenue NE — since 2014.

“I miss Coco. But I have one friend in my class who lives here, too. And we walk home together and look out for each other,” he said. “I’m thankful we have a place to sleep, at least.”

His favorite Thanksgivings were the ones when his grandma had them over.

“I’m still waiting to see if they call and invite us, my family,” said Renee Barnes, Brian’s 27-year-old mom. She works at a Taco Bell nearby. She used to drive one of the Metro Access vans but couldn’t make the hours and child care work, and that’s when she fell behind on rent and got evicted from Eagle’s Crossing.

So, back at the motel, the moms talk.

During Thanksgiving week, they played a mom game as the kids played in the parking garage.

“If you had a stove, what would you cook?” asked Evangela Adams.

“Oh. Mac and cheese,” one said.

“Alfredo. Lasagna.”

“Chitterlings. And a ham. And the turkey, of course.”

“More food than the whole family could eat. Did they invite y’all over?” one of them asked Barnes.

“No,” she said. “Not yet.”

Twitter: @petulad