The city of Washington, D.C., is facing an ongoing crisis in family homelessness. The latest data show that more than a thousand families are homeless, including at least 1800 children, a number that has risen almost 75 percent since the recession started in 2008.
With access to affordable housing severely restricted by budget cuts and a rising cost of living, local shelters have been crammed full throughout the winter.
Disabled single father Marcaus Scales has been homeless for a year. Since November, he and his four-year-old daughter Saihy have been living in the D.C. General family shelter, a converted hospital complex that is now a temporary home for about 286 families.
“I just got to constantly reassure her that things will get better, that it is only for a little bit," he says. "I get the crying at night. I get the 'I need your comfort.' Sometimes she just wants to sleep with me; she just needs 'daddy contact.' Sometimes she doesn't. Sometimes she adjusts pretty well.”
Still, Saihy goes to school every day while her father studies psychology at a local college. With most of D.C. General's children in school or daycare while parents work or try to find work, during the day its hallways are empty. The shelter was recently the center of local media attention after the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, a non-profit advocacy group for impoverished residents of the nation's capital, reported
on problems with heat and pest infestation.
“Every family will tell us, a shelter is not ideal, but is better than being on the street," says Amber Harding, an attorney for the clinic, whose mission is to help homeless individuals obtain housing, shelter and other services.
According to Harding, the streets of Washington are home to anywhere between 1,200 and 3,000 homeless children. Too often, she says, these families are forced to move from place to place on an almost daily basis in order to find a safe place to stay.
“The District [Washington, D.C.] is providing shelter to families only when the temperatures fall below 32 degrees [0 degrees Celsius]," she says. "So any night that is above 32 degrees, the District doesn’t have a legal obligation to provide shelter. And on those nights, we know that many families end up staying in bus stations, Greyhound stations, metro parks.”
For some shelter residents, however, there is reason to maintain hope. Sharisse Baltimore, for example, had called the shelter home for seven months — along with five of her six children. Her family was lucky enough to get into a voucher program that requires only 30 percent of her income for rent, enabling her to leave the shelter and move into her own house.
“One room, probably as big as this living room, there were six beds," she says, recalling the hardship of shelter life from a couch in her own living room. “I was overwhelmed, overjoyed. We actually came to look at the house and I had the keys, I had everything. I picked up the kids from the school and they were like 'Where are we going mommy?' When I let them out [they were asking] 'whose house is this?' I said this is our house.' 'Our house?' they said. 'Yes, honeys, this is our house.' I opened the door and they went running around."
But finding affordable housing is a major challenge, and some residents told council members at a recent hearing that gaining access to area shelters is even more difficult.
According to David Berns, the city’s Director of Human Services, Mayor Vincent Grey has already committed millions of dollars for homeless services, which, he says, is already starting to help.
“We are shortening the length of stay here," says Berns. "We have been able to reduce the number of placements into shelter from last year, so there is already positive effect that's taking place.”
Back at D.C. General, Marcaus Scales says homeless families should also be provided with training and education to keep any affordable housing they might acquire. In the meantime, however, he is not losing hope that he will soon find his way out.
“When you lose hope, you lose everything, and that is the only thing I have right now," he says. "And that’s a lot because it gives me my motivation to get up every day, go out and try my hardest to make this experience my last experience, and to really come out of this.”