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Tamika Smalls leads me into the closest thing to home she has right now: a motel room in Jessup, Maryland.
A toddler, 2-year-old Sha-Miyiaah, is laying half-asleep on one of the two full beds in the room. Another of her daughters, 13-year-old Shakaliah, sits on the other bed and smiles sheepishly at me as Smalls and I sit down.
Finding a space to sit is a challenge and walking around is just about out of the question. Every corner of the room is stacked with laundry bags full of clothes.
“Our room is a little bigger than two walk in closets with a bathroom,” Smalls says. “[It’s] horrible, we have not had a home cooked meal in about seven months.”
Seven months ago, Smalls says, a dispute with her landlord forced her and her family out of their house.
She says she’s looked for a new place to fit her large family, without any luck. And a steady job, which would help her afford unsubsidized housing, isn't really an option for her either, partly due to a laundry list of medical problems.
“I have congestive heart failure, COPD [Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease], chronic asthma, lumbar disc disease, and severe sleep apnea. Well, at one time it was severe, but I got the gastric bypass, and it helped some of my health problems, but they're not totally gone,” she explains.
And so that means right now she’s cobbling together disability checks to pay for the cheapest weekly hotel rates she can find online, even if that means they bring her and her family nearly an hour outside the city, like this room in Jessup.
“I got it on Hotels.com. No, Hotwire. So it was $455 for this week — it keeps going up,” she says. “Sunday is checkout day. If I try to get this room again, it'll probably be $65-$70 a day, which will take it up over $500 [for a week], and I don't know where that money’s coming from.”
But it’s the younger members of the family, like 13-year-old Shakaliah, who may be suffering the most without a home.
“I want my friends to come over and stuff, but they can't come over because we're in a hotel, and there’s a lot of people in here,” she says. “So they're always asking me to come over, but I say no, because I have something to do and I don’t.”
Tamika seems at least aware of Shakaliah’s sadness, but she worries most about her 2-year-old Sha-Miyiaah, and her three month old boy, Azariah, who has yet to spend a night in a crib.
“Children don’t ask to come here. All they ask for is a place to stay, food to eat and clothes to wear. And right now I feel like the biggest failure, even though they have some place to temporarily stay, it’s not home,” she says.
For all those reasons, some part of Smalls is hoping a room in D.C. General Emergency Family Shelter will miraculously open up.
And it might really take a miracle — Smalls says she’s been told D.C. General isn’t accepting new families.
“D.C. General is not the best of places, but it’s somewhere where I wouldn’t have to worry about ‘Am I going to have to come with another $300 or $400 to stay. Are we going to have something to eat? Or do I have enough left in my account to have something to eat?’” she says.
“D.C. General would at least be a place where we might not be there all day, but we could at least come one place and lay our head.”
But within minutes, Smalls wavers on whether spending time in D.C General would help or hurt her family. Sometimes it seems like just another bad option in a life without any good ones.
“Just the thought of even having to go back there — I appreciated it, but I’m praying that another way opens up, another door opens up,” Smalls says, “And I'm praying for those families that something is done, where they don't have to live like that.”
Horatio Price, Smalls’ husband and the father of her two youngest children, has even stronger feelings about D.C. General: “I wouldn't send a dog there."
The 55-year-old Price is currently homeless as well. He says COPD and seizures keep him from holding down a steady job, and he shares motel rooms with the rest of the family.
He agrees that stability would be good for the children, but he’s heard enough about D.C. General to know he couldn't do it.
“I’d rather sleep out on the street. I’d rather go in the woods, and set up a camp then sleep in there, because there are far more rats in there then there are in a camp,” he says.
His strong words catch even Tamika off-guard.
“We discussed it but I didn't know he was that passionate about it,” she says. “I'm like, ‘Oh my!’”
She herself seems to change her mind about D.C. General two or three times during our conversation.
“I’m looking for a home, right now, my mind is, ‘Get us somewhere stable, beyond D.C. General,’” she says.
But what would Smalls say to people who hear his story and point out that she could and should have made different choices; that she should not have had yet another child when she can barely take care of the ones she already had?
“I say to those people, just like anybody else, I have a dream. And sometimes dreams don’t go the way we planned. Yes, I do have six children, three grown and three under 18, but I haven't asked you to do anything for them,” she says. “I’m not asking for a check or more food stamps. I’m saying help me help myself.”
There’s the big dilemma.
Tamika and many like her aren't sure what that help should look like. But her life and the lives of her children are reminders that figuring out a plan to address homelessness in D.C. isn't just an academic or political problem.
Music: "Floating Leaf" by Peals from Walking Field