WASHINGTON, DC — When Janice Coe, a homeless advocate in Loudoun County, learned through her prayer group that a young woman was sleeping in the New Carrollton Metro station with a toddler and a 2-month-old, she sprang into action.
Coe contacted the young woman and arranged for her to take the train to Virginia, where she put the little family up in a Comfort Suites hotel. Then Coe began calling shelters to see who could take them.
Despite several phone calls, she came up empty. Coe was shocked to learn that many of the local shelters that cater to families were full, including Good Shepherd Alliance, where Coe was once director of social services.
“I don’t know why nobody will take this girl in,” Coe said. “The baby still had a hospital bracelet on her wrist.”
In a region with seven of the 10 most affluent counties in the country, family homelessness is on the rise — straining services, filling shelters and forcing parents and their children to sleep in cars, parks, and bus and train stations. One mother recently bought $14 bus tickets to and from New York so she and her 2-year-old son would have a safe place to sleep — on the bus.
As cold weather descends on the region, the need will become increasingly acute, advocates say. That will be especially true in the District, where continued fallout from the recession and lack of affordable housing has contributed to an 18 percent increase in family homelessness this year over last.
The city has recently come under fire for turning away families seeking help as 118 overflow beds that were added last winter at D.C. General — the city’s main family homeless shelter — sit empty. A few places have recently opened up, but 500 families — some of whom are living with relatives or friends — are on a waiting list for housing.
“We’re hoping we can keep pace with those in the more dire situations,” said David A. Berns, director of the city’s Department of Human Services.
Berns said the city is trying to keep the overflow beds open for hypothermia season, which begins Nov. 1. The city is mandated by law to shelter its residents if the temperature falls below freezing. The agency does not have the money to operate the extra beds, Berns said.
D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who has been critical of the agency’s handling of the crisis, wonders why families are being denied help when the District has a $140 million budget surplus.
“Never did I imagine that beds would be kept vacant,” Graham said. “It’s very upsetting.”
Family homelessness around the Washington region has increased 23 percent since the recession began — though the total number of homeless people stayed fairly steady at around 11,800, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which did its annual “point-in-time” survey of the homeless in January. This included some 3,388 homeless children, the study showed.
“These families are the most desperate because they have young children and have nowhere to go,” said Nassim Moshiree, a lawyer for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.
Moshiree spent a good part of the day Friday trying to help a homeless mother of three who Thursday night slept with her children on the steps of a church in Northeast after unsuccessfully asking the city for help. After Moshiree intervened, the city found space for them late Friday.
“It’s a complete abomination,” said Antonia Fasanelli, executive director for the Homeless Persons Representation Project, a Maryland legal services and advocacy group based in Baltimore. She noted that in Baltimore — where homeless families from D.C. sometimes end up — three family shelters have been closed in the past five years, for a loss of about 100 shelter beds. “There is just not enough space.”
Throughout Maryland, Fasanelli said, 38 percent of homeless families are living on the streets. That’s the seventh-highest rate of unsheltered families in the country, according to a Department of Housing and Urban Development study on the homeless released in December.
At the Comfort Suites off Route 7 on Thursday, Helen Newsome, 25, fed her 2-year-old son, Cameron, an orange from the breakfast buffet as her infant daughter Isabella slept on the bed beside her.
Newsome said she became homeless this summer after she was evicted from her apartment in Prince George’s County. Since then, she and her children have slept most nights on a bench or the hard tile floor at the New Carrollton Metro, she said. Although she called several area shelters before she was evicted, she said she could never find one with room.
“I’m not asking for a whole room for myself, as long as I have someplace to sleep, somewhere soft,” Newsome said.
On Thursday, Coe took Newsome to the Loudoun County Department of Family Services, where a social worker helped her sign up for food stamps and other aid and said she would try and help her find a subsidized apartment. Finally, Newsome said she could see an end to her ordeal.
“They’re leaning on me,” she said, gesturing to her kids. “I’m their only hope. It’s okay. Everybody goes through something, some people worse than others.”