- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 24, 2007

When Chimera Tucker and her fiance, Kevin Smith, ran out of housing options in the District, they slept with their 2-week-old daughter under two large umbrellas at a subway station.

The city had twice turned away their requests for shelter, but after several days at the subway station last July, the couple got the attention of some workers — with help from little Jazzmine. “They looked at the baby and said, ‘Oh wow, y’all need somewhere to stay,’ ” Mr. Smith said.

The family’s plight is far from unique in the District. The economic renaissance that has revitalized the city’s neighborhoods, bringing high-end condos and stratospheric rents, is increasingly pushing out low-income residents like Miss Tucker and Mr. Smith. And those displaced families are putting more pressure on subsidized-housing programs and emergency shelters.

A record 56,047 families from the District were on waiting lists for public housing and Section 8 vouchers in November — the latest month for which statistics were available. That’s up 7 percent from the same period in 2005, according to the D.C. Housing Authority.

For those families in line for emergency shelter, the city simply doesn’t have enough supply to meet demand.

On any given day, about 300 families are waiting for a spot in D.C. Village, an emergency housing shelter under fire for overcrowding and infestations, among other problems. The shelter, which took in Miss Tucker and Mr. Smith, has fewer than 70 beds under normal conditions.

Altogether, the city has about 200 family shelter units — not enough to serve the families in need.

“They’ll tell you there’s no place for you, then they’ll convince you that you should go back to where you came from, which might be a crack house or a terribly overcrowded house,” said Mary Ann Luby, an outreach coordinator at the Washington Legal Clinic, a nonprofit that advises homeless people.

Now that frigid weather has arrived in the District, homeless advocates are again worrying about where to place families in need.

The District’s hypothermia law requires officials to shelter homeless people on nights when the temperature dips below 32 degrees. Extra beds are put into D.C. Village and at D.C. General Hospital, and when that space runs out, groups like the Legal Clinic have in the past persuaded the city to pay families’ hotel costs.

When the weather is milder, homeless families have fewer options. Unlike other cities, like New York, which require that all people in need receive shelter, the District normally has no units immediately available to homeless families. That forces most families to crowd into small apartments with other families or, in the worst cases, sleep outside with their children.

Experts agree that the affordable-housing crisis is one of the biggest contributors to the homeless problem in cities like the District.

The D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute recently estimated that rising rents alone caused a loss of 7,500 units with rents under $500 a month between 2000 and 2004. From 2003 to 2005, the median price of a home in the District shot up 67 percent, from $290,000 to $485,000. And more than 18,000 condos, many with big price tags, are under construction in the city.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said he supports a 2006 city-commissioned report that offers recommendations on relieving the affordable-housing problem. It suggests designating a certain percentage of affordable units in new developments and creating mixed-income communities.

Like many homeless families, Miss Tucker, 22, and Mr. Smith, 36, found it difficult to find the road out of the homeless system.

Both worked at fast-food restaurants and had difficulty making ends meet. They were evicted in 2005 from Miss Tucker’s mother’s home after her mother stopped paying the rent. At one point, they found a place to stay on their own, but Miss Tucker became pregnant, got depressed and quit her job, causing the couple to lose their apartment.

Mr. Smith said he has been taking classes to get a commercial driver’s license and hopes to drive trucks to help his family get back on its feet.

After seven months in D.C. Village, Miss Tucker got a phone message in January: It was the city telling the family to get ready to move into a new transitional apartment. They finally left D.C. Village. (Miss Tucker noted that the move came after she spoke to several press outlets about her situation and the shelter conditions.)

Miss Tucker, Mr. Smith and their daughter, now 8 months old, hope to eventually move into a permanent place of their own.

That place might be in Richmond or somewhere in North Carolina, but it won’t be in the District, where Mr. Smith spent his whole life.

“As of right now, I can’t even make it in my own city,” Mr. Smith said.

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