C.B. made it to her current age of 73 thanks to her strong pride, a close relationship with her son and an upbringing steeped in faith. Yet this kind soft-spoken woman, who even baked a cake from scratch for this reporter, spent most of her senior years living in a car and a county shelter.
Jews are supposed to be the ones on the giving end — donating time and money to help those less fortunate than themselves. But C.B. guffaws when told that Jews aren’t supposed to be among the homeless. She emphatically states that anyone, regardless of their background, has the potential to be out on the street, even Jews.
Alice Forcier, program director at one of Montgomery County’s apartments for the homeless, agreed. “There is always some Jewishness represented. Always,” she said.
C.B., who asked that her real name not be used, was brought up Orthodox in Washington, D.C. Her father was a policeman and her mom worked in a department store. She graduated from a vocational high school, learning the ins and outs of taking care of children. She went on to spend 39 years working in day care centers in Silver Spring and Gaithersburg.
The rotund woman who suffers from diabetes married an Israeli, who came to America when he was only 2 years old. They met at a B’nai B’rith outing, she recalled, and married in 1961. They had a son. Life was good for many years, her son became a bar mitzvah and she was involved in their synagogue’s sisterhood. Her son eventually began his own life, working in the restaurant business.
In 1979, her husband died. C.B. sold their house and moved into her son’s condominium. Things were working out until, one day, when her son was headed to work as assistant manager of a Burger King, he was badly injured in a car accident. “Between medical bills and still having to pay for the car, we couldn’t pay the mortgage,” she explained.
Everything snowballed downhill from there, and the mother and son soon found themselves without anywhere to go. “We lived in a car for a couple of months in Gaithersburg,” she said.
“At first, I was frightened to live on the street. We were up. Instead of sleeping in the car, we were talking about what we were going to do next.”
About the only thing the mother and son were sure of was that they were not going to let on that they were homeless. They had no relatives nearby anyway, she said.
“Maybe I was afraid to. We wanted to, yet we didn’t. How could they respect us? You can’t tell them, ‘Hey we lost everything.’ It was an embarrassment. It was just a show of face.”
She also chose not to tell friends or anyone at her synagogue and just stopped going. “Never, ever” did she consider going to synagogue officials for assistance. “I felt like I didn’t want anybody to know. I wanted to hide.”
C.B. was receiving retirement money, so she and her son were able to buy food, but didn’t have enough to go to a hotel for more than two or three days at the most, she recalled. Still, throughout all this, “We thought we are going to get out of this someday.”
Then they were approached and told they could no longer live in the car. It was time to move on, they were told and then directed to a county shelter, separate ones as men and women cannot go to the same ones, C.B. said. They each slept at their respective shelter but spent their days “just walking around.”
They used the little money they still had to rent a storage unit and left all their furniture and other possessions. They couldn’t drag them around all day. All C.B. kept was what fit into the back pack she wore as she cruised the mall and other nearby stores.
Always near at hand was her very small, palm-sized Prayer Book for Jewish Personnel in the Armed Forces of the United States. It provided her with much comfort, especially the prayer, For Moral Strength, on Page 344. A rubber band marks the well-worn page.
“It helped a lot. It was given to me by my mom. I kept it in my pocket and my purse all the time.”
She soon learned of a Montgomery County program, where if she could pay a small rent, she could have her own efficiency apartment. C.B. ended up living six years at Seneca Heights Apartments in Gaithersburg. There she worked to get her life back, partaking in the provided counseling and other social events.
Seneca Heights, at any given time, is home to 17 families and 40 single adults. While the families can stay indefinitely, single adults are encouraged to regain their lives and move out as soon as they can. Their average stay is about four years, said Forcier, program director at Seneca Heights Apartments & Home First.
“One-third of the people who leave here, leave with no subsidies,” she said. Others, like C.B. move on to another subsidized apartment, or move in with family members, with whom they have regained communications, after demonstrating they can get their lives in order.
Stereotypes about the homeless don’t ring true at all, Forcier said. The homeless do work. They do not want to sit around and live off government subsidies, she said.
“Unfortunately, they are invisible unless they are panhandling or you see them on the street, and they are the minority.” The ones working to regain control of their lives, the majority of the homeless population, are not the ones you see or hear about, she stressed.
“I consider homelessness, and I guess everyone does, a trauma in life, a feeling of hopelessness, a lack of control,” Forcier said. A homeless person needs to overcome not just being without a stable place to go but also the trauma, she said. “You want to make housing where they are empowered. Somehow with the homeless population, there has been a history of making you jump through hoops.”
To move into private apartments, people need only prove they can come up with the rent on a regular basis. They aren’t asked if they drink or take drugs. They are not questioned about their lifestyles, Forcier said.
This is why she sets few rules for those living at Seneca Heights. They must pay their rent, usually 30 percent of their income. “I am really strict. You pay, you stay. You don’t, you go,” she summed up. They also must participate in the tenant council, which makes all decisions on how the community lives and solves problems as they arise.
“This is about leadership, feeling empowered. They have a say. That is an important thing for them to learn,” she said, adding, “They have more power than they realize.”
C.B. did well, earning awards such as Humanitarian and Tenant of the Month, which she proudly showed off. She was complimented “for her amazing prowess in the kitchen and cooking delicious recipes to make sure that parties at Seneca Heights Apartments are something to look forward to,” it states on the plaque she proudly shows off.
Seneca Heights Apartments used to be an Econo Lodge. It was converted to make sure there was only one entrance/exit so the staff can keep tabs on its residents, making sure they are out and about, taking advantage of free counseling services and the crowded agenda of programs, ranging from Spanish classes to Salsa dancing and sessions on getting off drugs.
When a homeless person is first shown the efficiency apartment that will be all his or hers, the “initial reaction is, ‘Wow. This is heaven. My own room,’ and then within a year they realize it’s small,” Forcier said, adding, “which is how it should be.”
The apartments are completely furnished with a bed, table, chairs and a desk. They are given linen and towels. “The only thing you need is food, clothes, personal decorations,” she said. “They cook their own food. They do their own shopping. Here they are building a life, not just trying to survive.” When people no longer have to worry where they will sleep that night, “they start to move on.” Some attend classes at Montgomery County College or work out at a gym, she said.
The complex includes laundry rooms and two community rooms where they can socialize. There also are smaller rooms with computers, large screen televisions and kitchens. The hallways are painted a cheery blue, and the outside sports a children’s playground, vegetable and flower gardens tended to by residents and barbecue grills with nearby tables.
There is a waiting list to move into a county apartment, but it is purged every three months. People must reapply if not yet chosen. But generally if a person is willing to improve and can pay at least something, an apartment will be forthcoming.
Some of those requesting county housing make minimum wage at full-time jobs, Forcier said. They make about $300 a week that must cover rent, food, utilities and money to get to and from their job.
The most recent count to see how many people were homeless here took place about a year ago, on Jan. 30. There were 1,004 homeless people in Montgomery County on that day and a total of 11,547 homeless residents in the metropolitan Washington area. The largest population was in the District. There were 6,865 homeless people there at that time.
“Homelessness is still a challenge, but the numbers in the region have been essentially flat since 2009,” said Michael Ferrell, chairman of Homeless Services Committee and executive director of the District of Columbia’s Coalition for the Homeless.
According to The Homelessness in Metropolitan Washington report prepared by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ Homeless Services Planning and Coordinating Committee, Fairfax County had 1,350 homeless people; Prince George’s County had 686; Prince William County had 447; Alexandria had 275; Arlington County had 479; Frederick County had 275; and Loudoun County had 166.
Those included in this count were people living in streets, parks, alleys, camp sights, emergency or hypothermia shelters or safe havens, transitional housing. Also part of the count were formerly homeless people now living in permanent supportive housing and receiving supportive social services, according to the report.
The count was called a one-day “snapshot” of the region’s homeless population. “Data collected this year confirm what each jurisdiction has observed in practice, that the greatest barrier to ending homelessness in our communities is a lack of fixed, affordable permanent housing opportunities for the lowest income households,” the report states.
The county has services to take care of those at the bottom rung, C.B. said. There is no reason to stand at a busy intersection with your hand out, she said, adding that she believes those panhandlers “probably have more money in their pockets than I do.”
During Montgomery County’s 100,000 HOMES campaign registry week last month, a survey of 369 homeless people found that their average age was 45-and-a-half years. Almost half reported at least one serous health condition, and 22 percent had received inpatient emergency room treatment at least three times last year. Thirty one of those surveyed were veterans.
The survey also revealed that 26 percent of the homeless had been victims of violent attacks.
About two years ago, C.B. moved out of Seneca and into an apartment house in Silver Spring, with a bus stop right in front. Her son also lives there, but in a different apartment on a different floor.
Her rent is subsidized, and comes out of her only income, Social Security. She explained precisely that she receives $723 a month and pays $207 in rent and about the same in groceries, utilizing the $17 she gets in food stamps. She had received $27 each month but that was cut in November, she said.
While there is no money for luxuries, “I have cable. That’s my one and only thing,” she said.” She spends time reading and cooking, and when the weather is nice, she takes the bus into downtown Silver Spring to walk around. She also uses the bus to get to her doctor appointments.
Her apartment is surrounded by Cabbage Patch Kid dolls she bought when they first came out or received as presents. The other stuffed animals come from the dollar store. “They are nice, cuddly, cute and soft,” she explained.
“In a case like this, you have to be strong,” she said before declaring, “Things worked out well. I like where I am.”