Nkechi Feaster stays at the homeless shelter on the site of the former D.C. General Hospital. She and her son have been residents for 9 months, and she said that she really hopes that she doesn't hit the one-year mark. (Michael S. Williamson/THE WASHINGTON POST)

When Shakieta Smith, a homeless mother of two, called the District’s shelter hotline in March, she was told the city’s shelters were full — and then the intake worker added a chilling warning:

If she and her kids had nowhere safe to sleep, she’d be reported to the city’s Child and Family Services Agency for a possible investigation into abuse and neglect.

Since then Smith has spent her days looking over her shoulder and her nights worrying about her family’s uncertain future. Could Child Protective Services investigators find her and her two kids at a cousin’s apartment in Southeast, where they often stay? Would they sweep in and take Da’Quan and Da’Layah from their elementary school one afternoon? The fear haunts her.

“I was afraid that my kids would be taken from me just because I can’t afford to live in D.C.,” Smith, 25, a hairdresser, said recently. “It’s not like I’m abusive or none of that. I ran into a situation where I don’t have no place to go.”

Family homelessness in the District has risen 74 percent since the downturn, an increase that’s left the city’s main homeless shelter brimming with 800 adults and children. Dozens more families have been temporarily sent to live in hotels along New York Avenue at a cost of $3 million.

Homeless families in the Washington region (The Washington Post/Source: Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments)

With no where to put families seeking help, intake workers began warning parents over the winter that if they really had no where to go they would be reported to child welfare authorities, and risk losing their kids to foster care.

“It’s a slippery slope and it’s not what we want to do,” said David A. Berns, the director of the D.C. Department of Human Services. “But when we get down to the situation we have been in and we have no resources to place the families ... we involve all the partners we can to keep the kids safe.”

Advocates for the homeless say that such a blatant warning is virtually unheard of and that the city is creating a climate of fear among families who need help.

“It is an outrage that it’s happening,” said Patty Mullahy Fugere, the executive director of the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, where attorneys have accused the city of placing parents in a “heart-wrenching Catch-22.”

Mindy Good, the spokesman for CFSA, notes that while homelessness alone is not sufficient reason under D.C. law to remove a child from a parents’ care, the agency has investigated families seeking shelter to see if there were other issues of abuse and neglect — apart from lack of housing — or gave them referrals to other community groups for help.

So far, 32 families have been reported to the city’s Child and Family Services Agency but no children have yet been removed from their parents’ care, she said. But the fear persists.

“I’m sorry that people view the child welfare system as a threat rather a safety net,” Good said. “But yes, this is a reality.”

Ruth Anne White, the executive director for the National Center for Housing and Child Welfare, said that about half of states list a caregiver’s inability to provide shelter as part of their definition of abuse and neglect, but some of these laws have successfully been challenged in court. The District’s definition does include shelter but makes an exception for lack of financial means.

What’s unusual about D.C., White believes, is that the overburdened city is using its new warning to reduce the number of families in its system by scaring away parents like Smith who might be able to scrape by sleeping on couches, with friends and family or in their cars.

“These people are simply walking in the door for assistance and people don’t have shelter and they’re saying, ‘We’re calling CPS on you? ‘ It’s ridiculous,” White said. “It is scandalous. I’ve never seen it done this blatantly.”

Lawyers for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless said they first began hearing from families who had been threatened with investigation this winter and now many of their clients avoid seeking help.

One woman who recently testified at a council hearing wept as she described her fear that she would lose custody of her younger son, a 16-year-old honor student, after the family was evicted from their apartment in April and ended up sleeping in Anacostia Park.

“I’m just so afraid,” she said. “They tell me they’re going to come and have my son taken away. I can’t deal with that. My boys is all I know.”

Smith said that when she called the city’s hotline in March, the caseworker told her there were no beds available, then repeatedly telephoned her over the course of two days, warning if she and the kids had no where to sleep she would be investigated.

Eventually she stopped answering her phone. Later, she consulted the Legal Clinic, where attorneys advised her not to contact the city again. But she still feels like a target.

“They don’t know where I’m at but yeah they’ve got my name and stuff,” she said. “They could take my kids from school.”

While the number of homeless people in the region stayed fairly steady throughout the economic downturn — rising just 1 percent in five years — the share of that number that were families increased by 23 percent regionally and by 74 percent in the District alone, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which does a point-in-time survey of shelters each January.

In the District, families have been hit with a triple whammy of job losses, foreclosures and rents that rose even in the downturn.

Meantime, in a city that is one of the few in the nation with a budget surplus, the District is diverting more than $38 million from a fund dedicated to the construction of affordable housing to short-term rental subsidies. It also faces a $7 million shortfall for homeless services in the next budget year due to a loss of federal funds-- which may force officials to cut services further or even considering closing some shelters for single adults.

The city council did recently approve $4 million in additional rent subsidies for homeless families to help allieviate some crowding.

“We have a $240 million surplus and we’re reporting that the District of Columbia is one of the wealthiest cities in the United States and that means the world,” said Council Member Jim Graham (D- Ward 1). “With so much prosperity, why would we be talking about doing less for those who have nothing?”

But with unemployment in some areas of the city still high and rents increasing, homeless families that once stayed six to nine months in the city’s main shelter — on the campus of the old D.C. General hospital in Southeast — are now living there for a year or more.

Nkechi Feaster, 36, a writer who lost her apartment last August after three layoffs in four years, couch-surfed for three months before she got a spot for herself and her 17-year-old son at D.C. General. She said she’s glad to be there, but sharing a communal bathroom and a room with two tiny cots with her son can be taxing.

“I would have liked to be out of here in six months, but I hope it’s not going to be past a year!” she said. “At the same time who am I to say what’s going to happen?”

Smith, a petite women with long braids who rarely cracks a smile, is now trying to find a cheap apartment near where her two children, ages 10 and 8, are thriving at Stanton Elementary.

On recent day Smith went to the school in Southeast for a parent-teacher class on summer learning. Teacher Sheryl Garner smiled when she greeted her, exclaiming “You’re always here!”

Garner said after class she was surprised when Smith confided that she was homeless and recalled being moved by the sadness that overcame Smith’s daughter Da’Layah when the teacher had to drop her student off at the cousin’s house after a cooking class.

“I really could tell she wanted it to be a permanent home,” Garner said. “Everybody deserves to have a home of their own.”

Hearing this, the normally impassive Smith wiped a tear from her eye.