On sultry summer evenings the benches along the Alexandria waterfront serve as a place of respite for tourists and passersby to enjoy a view of the Potomac, but on bitter winter nights they are a stone cold bed for the homeless, like Tabbitha and her fianc Jacob.
Tabbitha, 24, works at the Hard Times Chili Caf on King St. where shed been hired as waitress. A cheerful young woman, her cherubic face and easy smile belied the fact that merely surviving the past few months was a nearly insurmountable challenge.
Waiting for my soda and appetizer to arrive, I assume she is a college student bussing tables on the weekend to make pocket money for the occasional movie or off-campus dinner. She is homeless. Have you ever thought about doing a story on people like us? she asked.
Fortunately, notebook and pen were handy, because Tabbitha began to recount her story. Any ill-conceived stereotypes of homelessness I had began to dissipate along with our hunger.
Tabbitha moved to the Washington area in 2005 to attend Potomac Job Corps. She quickly earned a degree in electrical wiring and met the love of her life, Jacob.
Although Jacob is several years younger than her, the two fell hard for each other and moved into an apartment in Cheverly, Md. They both landed jobs working for an air purification company.
Things were looking up until Jacob became injured at work. According to the couple, the manager did not want to pay for Jacobs medical needs and terminated them both late last year.
With no income and medical expenses piling up, Tabbitha and Jacob found themselves in dire straits. Tabbitha said she would never turn to her family for help: My parents believe that you make your path and then you have to stick with it, she said.
Tabbithas path was not a pretty one. In early February, the couples belongings were kicked to the curb when they were evicted from the home they had made together. Their car was repossessed and their cell phones turned off.
With no money, transportation or means of communication, the couple did the only thing they could think of beg for spare change on the metro: Its so hard to ask people for money, but I never thought I would be homeless ever, Tabbitha said.
But homeless they were. They made their way to Alexandria and spent their first night as a homeless couple sleeping on benches near the waterfront and on King St. The February chill was especially hard on Jacob. I still cant feel my toes, he said.
Finding a shelter to help Tabbitha and Jacob was especially frustrating for them. They never knew getting into a homeless shelter could be so bureaucratic, the couple said. We went to so many different shelters, but they all told us we needed to be on a list or have some sort of recommendation, Tabbitha said.
The Metro Police were less than helpful. Tabbitha said that she and Jacob were accosted by Metro Police near King Street and asked for identification. They were told, according to Tabbitha, that they could not ask for money on subways or buses.
Despite the odds, Tabbitha and Jacob have been able to put enough money together to stay in inexpensive hotel rooms in Alexandria, and are hoping to find someone with a spare room for them. They have found jobs at Hard Times as waiters and cooks.
But most importantly to Tabbitha, they have each other. He keeps me laughing, Tabbitha said of the man she hopes will one day be her husband. And with that, Tabbitha went back to work gaily greeting guests as if nothing was the matter, cleaning away tables with food that patrons do not want, but that could have been her dinner that night.
I left the Hard Times Caf knowing more about hard times, and the courageous people who live through them.