With D.C.'s shelters full, many needy are turned away
Ebony Shelley is sitting on a brick window ledge in front of a discount minimart in Southeast D.C., rifling through her bag for a bottle of milk. Strapped to her chest, in a harness she got from Goodwill, is a tiny person. It's her two-month-old son, Kylha, and he's wailing.
"It's about his time," his mother mutters softly.
The strip mall where Shelley sits is mostly deserted. The parking lights are out. Half the store fronts are boarded up. It feels haunted. The 22-year-old mother of four is homeless, and she doesn't know where she and her infant son are going to spend the night tonight. When she can't find a place to stay, she walks. And walks. Her thin purple shoes have holes.
"I'm hoping I'll find something within the night," she says. "A lot of times me and him will just walk around late, just pass time at night. I don't trust sleeping out there, 'cause there's a lot going on. You hear gunshots, you know, people running red lights."
Shelley's story, while tragic, is not unique. There are currently 600 families on the waiting list for D.C.'s emergency shelters, and there has been a 70 percent increase in the number of homeless families in the district since the beginning of the recession, according to the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. In the Metro region, there's been an increase of 23 percent, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
One of Shelley's four children is in the custody of an estranged ex-boyfriend. She still cares for the others — Amani, 6, Kyree, 1 and and 2-month-old Kylha. Shelley had her first at 16. She finished high school despite the pregnancy, at the behest of her grandmother.
"I was in school with a big old belly, everyone staring at me like, 'Oh my god, she's pregnant,'" Shelley says.
At night, Amani and Kyree sleep at the house of Amani's father, another of Shelley's exes, leaving Shelley with just her infant to care for throughout the night.
"'Cause she does go to school, so we make sure she's well rested," Shelley says of Amani.
In the morning, with Kyree back in tow, they often go to Shelley's grandparents' house. But as she explains how it's possible that she's still homeless, it becomes clear how messy and fragile her life is. She's not the only one in a tough situation; it's everyone around her.
Her mom would help, explains Shelley, if she weren't in in treatment for a drug problem. Her grandparents' house is crowded: nine people live there, and that doesn't count Shelley and her kids. They also have a problem with bedbugs, she adds, "so we can barely sit down; my kids are getting bit up left and right."
Shelley first ended up at her grandparents' house after breaking it off with her abusive boyfriend. It wasn't her first brush with abuse. A previous boyfriend had pushed her down the stairs, even withheld food from her. She "saw red flags" in the new boyfriend, so she left him. He followed her.
"He came to my grandparents' house, and he started hell-raising and threatening everyone in the house, and threatening to take my son and he wouldn't leave the premises unless I came out," she says. "So we had to call the police. They told me I had to put a restraining order against him and I did. But my grandparents were very concerned because he said himself he doesn't care about this restraining order."
They told her they thought it was best that she find somewhere else to stay.
"I don't have any hard feelings against my grandparents, but I find that hard," she says. "Just like, oh man, I don't know where I'm gonna go."
For about 25 percent of homeless families in the D.C. region, domestic violence is the biggest factor in their homelessness. For 15 percent, it's the direct reason for their situation.
Shelley hasn't been idle. She goes to the city's homeless intake center, or calls the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center, every day.
"If I don't go to Virginia Williams, I call nonstop. But calling goes nowhere. So I try to make it up to VW as much as I can," she says. "I sit for an hour or two just to hear, 'Unfortunately we don't have any openings today.' I'm walking around in the middle of the night ... with a two month old kid. And you say you don't have anything?"
But it's complicated. Many shelters do technically have beds available, but they reserve them before hypothermia season. They need the beds for when temperatures reach freezing and the city is legally required to take anyone and everyone in. Before the season starts on Nov. 1, they only open up those beds on a nightly basis if the temperature drops below 32 degrees.
"And every day, I'm like please reach 32 degrees, please reach 32 degrees. And I'm calling the shelter hotline at night and I'm like, 'Ma'am, I'm outside with my kid right now, my son is two months old.' 'We have no space available,' that's all I hear," she says. "It's so discouraging because where's the sympathy for the baby? Me, I can understand, but my kids, have some sympathy for them. Let's get them out of the cold."
With the uptick in homeless families in D.C., the shelters in the entire region are full. The wait for transitional housing is at least one year. For some types of housing, the wait is 20 years.
And so Shelley's only option right now is to wait for a place in the shelter, for the rare job she could apply for somehow, despite taking care of her kids.
"If I could find a job, if I had to go door to door and drop off newspapers, trust me I would," she says. "I can't go to an interview with two maybe three kids with me."
She sees resorting to panhandling as "rock bottom."
"I just couldn't see myself sitting in front of a store asking, 'do you have some change so me and my kids ...'" she trails off. "I could not see myself doing that."
Still, becoming homeless has changed the way Ebony looks at other homeless people.
"Honestly I would look at homeless people and wonder, 'Why aren't you doing anything about it?'" she says. "Because before I became in this situation, to hear there's a whole bunch of programs available, I'm looking at these people saying, 'Why aren't you taking advantage of them, why are you panhandling?' Now I'm in this situation, I understand."
So Ebony Shelley walks. Sometimes she sleeps at bus stations, sometimes cat-naps in a house where she fears her ex-boyfriend's return. Sometimes doesn't sleep at all, just rides the bus wherever it goes. Her voice gets lighter as she thinks on riding the bus to the memorials in D.C., or to Haines Point, where she and Kylha watched the light glisten off the surface of the water. But soon the darkness creeps back into her voice.
"When I leave, I leave with no destination," she says. "I'm only crossing bridges when I come to them. I don't know. That's my honest answer: I don't know."
Since this interview, Ebony Shelley was finally admitted to a shelter. She's looking for a job, and a permanent place to live.
[Music: "I Need a Dollar," by Aloe Blacc from I Need a Dollar (How to Make it in America)]