City Paper is not for tourists
After two months living with her mother, Sarah Drawn would much rather be back in the homeless shelter.
It’s not so much that living in Capitol Heights, Md., sometimes means a three-hour commute to her job on H Street NE, including a pit stop to drop her 1-year-old son off at daycare in Deanwood. Or that her mom and stepdad already kicked her out of the house once, around her 18th birthday, and may soon kick her out again amid rising tensions at home.
It’s mainly the condition of the house. Her mother, says Drawn, has bags full of stuff all over the house. Worse, her mom has nine dogs, and both Drawn and her son are allergic. Her son spent time in the hospital this winter with an upper respiratory infection and hasn’t fully recovered, landing back in the hospital this month with pneumonia. Drawn suspects the dogs and clutter are making his condition much worse.
“If child protective services came to the house, they’d take him from me,” says Drawn, 21. “If they saw that, he would be gone, because they’d know that’s an unsafe place for him.”
Drawn and her son checked into the Virginia Williams Family Resource Shelter this winter to seek shelter from the city. Their timing was bad: With the population of homeless families skyrocketing—through January, it was more than double last winter’s number—the city was running out of places to put them, and started turning to recreation centers. So Drawn and her son ended up at the Benning Park Recreation Center, where they slept on cots on the basketball court, separated from the other families by a movable partition. For much of their time there, there were no showers, and the lights stayed on all night.
But at least they had a place to stay. When spring came, that changed. The city is legally obligated to provide shelter to homeless families in need when temperatures with wind chill drop below freezing. (The law requires apartment-style shelter or private rooms; when a judge ruled in March that the rec centers didn’t qualify, the families there were moved to motel rooms.) With the spring thaw, that obligation goes away.
Generally, families placed in shelter have been entitled to remain there until they find other housing. But the families sheltered at the rec centers, as well as those put up in motels in the late winter, were placed there provisionally, with the understanding that they’d be on their own once so-called hypothermia conditions ended. Temperatures fluctuated in March and April, sending families into and out of shelters until the last night of hypothermia on April 16.
In a March Washington City Paper cover story, I profiled families who were part of the spike in family homelessness and landed at the rec centers. In the past week, a month after the city stopped sheltering them, I caught up with a few of these families. With limited city assistance, families like Drawn’s are still living in suboptimal conditions and struggling to find housing that they can finally call their own.
Since leaving the Benning Park Recreation Center, Donnell Harris has become well acquainted with yogurt.
Families staying at the rec centers this winter had to check into Virginia Williams daily, often waiting there for hours before gaining permission to return to the rec center for another night. Harris, who was sleeping at Benning Park with his wife and two young children, found that with all the time he was spending at Virginia Williams and shuttling back and forth, there were hardly any hours left to apply for jobs.
Once the hypothermia season ended, the Harris family stayed first at a motel in Camp Springs, Md.—the cheapest Harris could find, with money borrowed from friends—and then with a friend in nearby Oxon Hill. He quickly landed a position at the Giant supermarket on H Street NE. He’s working in the dairy department, unloading the trucks and stocking the fridges.
“I’m seeing so many more yogurts than I’ve ever seen in my life,” he says. His hours, which started at four a day, are now up to six or seven—enough to eke out a living, if just barely.
That’s the good news. The bad news is on the housing front. The house in Oxon Hill where the Harrises are staying is beyond overcrowded: There are 10 people living in two bedrooms. Harris knows his family can’t remain for long.
The family is approved for rapid rehousing, the city’s main tool for moving homeless families into long-term housing. Through the program, the city subsidizes a family’s rent for a limited period of time—a guaranteed four months that can be extended to a year or beyond—after which the family covers its own costs. That means families approved for rapid rehousing have to find apartments they’ll eventually be able to afford on their own, a tall order in an increasingly unaffordable housing market.
Harris has looked at apartments in the Northeast, Southeast, and Southwest quadrants, and has managed to find a couple of places that are at the upper end of his price range, around $800 a month. But he’s run into another challenge: Of the seven landlords he’s talked to so far, none really understood how rapid rehousing works, and all were reluctant to participate.
“They don’t know anything about it,” Harris says. “They’re skeptical because they don’t know if they’ll get paid or not. I don’t know if anyone from the city is calling to let them know that we will pay, to explain the program better than I could. But from the answers I’m getting back, they don’t know anything about it.”
The city is working to change this. The administration of Mayor Vince Gray is in the middle of a 100-day effort to place 500 homeless families into rapid rehousing, largely through outreach to landlords.
But even if Harris does find a landlord who accepts rapid rehousing tenants—the legality of rejecting them is murky; landlords can’t discriminate on the basis of income source, but commonly give preference to would-be tenants who appear likelier to be able to pay—he’s worried he could be facing another hurdle. A friend in a similar situation, he says, found an apartment that accepted rapid rehousing but was turned down for bad credit—a fact of life for families trying to exit homelessness.
“My credit’s not the best of all credits either,” says Harris. “So even if I find a landlord who says, ‘Well yeah, we do take rapid rehousing, but your credit is holding you back,’ where does that leave me?”
The March court case on the legality of the rec-center shelters brought Dalanda Griffin and Melvern Reid to the same courtroom. Since then, their paths have diverged.
Griffin, who was staying at Benning Park with her husband and three children, testified that she couldn’t take her children to school because they’d wet the bed and smelled of urine, and there were no showers available. She said she eventually decided to leave the rec center with her family in order to sleep in the hallway of a nearby apartment building, where they could at least have some privacy.
“Since we left from the courtroom that day,” she says now, “I found a cousin that let me stay with her for a couple of months. But it’s almost time for me to leave, and D.C., they don’t have no place for us to go.”
Griffin is approved for rapid rehousing, but she’s struggling to find landlords who will accept it. She says landlords she’s spoken with have asked for a 12-month subsidy guarantee, when the city will provide a guarantee of just four months.
The Child and Family Services Agency got involved after her kids missed more than 10 days of school, due to the troubles at the rec center, she says. But the agency has told her to seek help at Virginia Williams, which in turn won’t place her into shelter now that the winter has passed. She feels stuck without city assistance.
“I don’t mind helping myself,” she says, “but I just need a little help.”
Reid also testified about the poor conditions at Benning Park, where her 10-year-old grandson was afraid to sleep due to the lack of privacy. She too stayed with a relative after the hypothermia season ended: her sister, who was permitted by her building to have guests for up to two weeks.
But last month, Virginia Williams placed her and her grandson at a third-party shelter, not run by the city. She says she’s been asked not to name the shelter because it houses victims of domestic violence, but she’s happy there—or at least happier than at the all-night laundromat where she and her grandson occasionally slept in the past.
“I got to give it to them, they did me good,” she says. “I’m just looking for a job now.”
Asked why Reid was placed in shelter when other families have been told the city isn’t making shelter placements now that winter has passed, Department of Human Services spokeswoman Dora Taylor says in an email that she can’t comment on specific cases due to privacy concerns. She adds, “Generally speaking, VWFRC continues to work with families after hypothermia season to help them identify resources and support.”
Sarah Drawn would prefer shelter to her mother’s place, but her case worker at Virginia Williams has said it’s impossible. “She just looked me in the face and told me they’re not doing any placement,” she says.
Virginia Williams did, however, offer her an incentive to live with her mother, Drawn says: a promise to contribute $200 a month toward utilities. Drawn calls it “bribery,” but it’s part of a broader program called Enhanced Mediation and Diversion that the city employs to allow families to stay with friends and relatives rather than in shelter, according to Taylor. Through the program, the city offers assistance with things like grocery and utility bills.
But Drawn has been at her mother’s for two months, and they still haven’t seen a cent of utility money from the city, she says. When she asked her caseworker’s supervisor about the unkept promise, she says, the supervisor had never heard of it. Taylor again declined to comment out of privacy considerations.
“You made a promise and you never upheld that,” Drawn says. “And the only reason my mom accepted it was because they said they were going to do it.” Drawn is considering legal action against the city.
She’s also trying to find housing, and on this front, things are looking up. Drawn is approved for rapid rehousing, and has found an apartment in Trinidad. The rent will be $1,000 a month after the rapid rehousing subsidy ends, but Drawn is hopeful that she can afford it, if she can find a better job between taking care of her son and pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business management from the University of the District of Columbia.
But, like so many experiences for families working their way out of homelessness, the process of locking down the apartment has proved frustrating. It failed its first inspection, and it’s taken longer than Drawn had hoped for the landlord to remedy the issues and get it reinspected and approved.
“I went with this one because she told me it’d be ready in March,” she says. “And now it’s May, and I’m still waiting.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery