Washington Robert Polight leaned over an electric pot in a corner of Room 27 at the Breezeway Motel, stirring the sauce for his family’s favorite dinner: spaghetti. He strained the noodles in the room’s cramped bathroom sink.
His wife, Joshalyn James, had just finished slicing sausage on the coffee table and was busy cleaning up after him. Son Jake, 6, quietly played a video game, and daughter Haira, 12, giggled on the phone.
Dinnertime, even under these circumstances, has given the family a sense of stability since it became homeless.
Suburban Fairfax County, Va., pays $65 a night for the family to stay at the 1950s-era motel in Fairfax City while it waits for space to open in a county shelter. The family was evicted from a rented townhouse after Polight lost his warehouse job and he and James couldn’t make ends meet on her salary as a medical assistant.
After a month at a relative’s house, two nights in the couple’s six-year-old Toyota and three nights in an emergency shelter, the family has tried to make a home in the drafty motel room, with its chipped, faded furniture and peeling paint. The family’s belongings, packed in garbage bags, sit in a corner.
It’s a long fall from the comfortable life the family had when Polight and James were making about $60,000 a year.
“But we’re together,” said Polight, 44. “We’re together, and all of this moving around, stuff in storage and all, won’t be for long … we hope. All of this situation makes you see how close you can be to everything — house, kids’ toys, clothes — being gone.”
For nearly a generation, the face of homelessness in America has been that of someone living on the street, panhandling for loose change. But with the foreclosure crisis, stagnant economy and rising unemployment, advocates for the homeless said they are seeing more two-parent families seeking shelter.
Many of the newly homeless are renters whose landlords were foreclosed on, members of families in which a parent lost a job, or low-wage workers who were living on the edge even before losing their jobs.
Experts who study homelessness and poverty said the increase in homeless families illustrates how severely the economic crisis is affecting middle- and working-class households and how the worsening economy is pushing more people toward poverty.
Two-parent households “are a regular part of the types of families we are seeing now,” said Cheri Villa, executive director of Serve, a suburban Manassas, Va.-area shelter and social services agency. She said the agency has seen more “intact” families halfway through this fiscal year than it did last year. That doesn’t include families who are turned away when the shelter is out of beds, she said.
“We could be talking about many, many more,” she said.
“It’s really all economic problems,” said Caroline Jones, director of client services at Doorways for Women and Children in Arlington, Va., which reported a threefold increase in such families.