Sum­mer on the streets

For city’s home­less, a change of sea­sons of­fers no re­lief

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - abi­gail.hauslohner@wash­

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.

Af­ter los­ing their home in a build­ing fire, a South­east D.C. fam­ily dis­cov­ers the hard­ships and nav­i­gates the bu­reau­cracy em­blem­atic of so­ci­ety’s for­got­ten


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.

In the af­ter­math, it was the Red Cross, not the city, that first came to their aid, pick­ing the mup 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-anight 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.

“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. to­have 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 sta- bil­ity 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 knewit 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 cour­tap­pointed 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 13year-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.”


Sierra Oliver, 2, falls asleep af­ter hav­ing lunch with her fa­ther, An­dre Foster, at a Days Inn in North­east­Wash­ing­ton that the fam­ily is us­ing as tem­po­rary hous­ing.


A Days Inn in North­east­Wash­ing­ton is seen through a fence. Home­less fam­i­lies stay­ing there must get per­mis­sion for any of their chil­dren to spend the night else­where.

A man is es­corted by a se­cu­rity of­fi­cer in the park­ing lot of the Days Inn, where sev­eral home­less fam­i­lies re­side. He threw his arms up in frus­tra­tion while be­ing ques­tioned by the guard.

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