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TimeSpace: Half A Tank

Post photographer Michael Williamson is traveling across the country covering the economic situation.

Coming Home


Dana lost her job in the food services industry, but, for now, has been able to hold onto her apartment in Prince George's County. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

A woman stood near the Wheaton Plaza mall in a floral dress that made it clear she cared about her appearance. She held up a sign that told of her pained, but not yet crippled state. “Jobless,” it said, “not -- yet -- homeless.” A box was drawn around the last three words.

The woman, who gave her name only as Dana, said she lost her job at a restaurant and is clinging to her apartment in Prince George’s County. She panhandles in Montgomery County, she said, because people there are more able and willing to give.

When Michael and I started our trip at the beginning of the summer, Wheaton Plaza was one of our first stops. We went to the shopping center, which is only blocks from Michael’s house, to survey a cluster of empty businesses. Each bore a ghost sign--a faded mark on the facade that designated a vanished business.

Now, as we come home and drive once again through familiar streets, we only have to look around to see that the situation has improved for some and worsened for others. At the shopping center, the space where Circuit City used to be has a new resident: an IFL furniture store. A large yellow and blue banner announces its "Grand Opening." But then there’s Dana. She wasn't there when we left, wasn't competing for that spot with other panhandlers.

In the next few days, Michael and I will end this blog where we started it -- at home in the Washington area. If you have suggestions about where we should go or whom we should meet to show how the great shifts in the economy have changed how we live and think, please send me an email or leave a comment below.


A furniture showroom opens at Wheaton Plaza mall in what had been an abandoned Circuit City. The letters "IFL" now hang where the electronics store's circle logo once did. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  September 23, 2009; 10:27 AM ET
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Next: For Richer or Poorer


Just want to say thank you for one of the best reporting series I've ever read. Both of you deserve awards.

Posted by: AnnsThought | September 23, 2009 11:00 AM | Report abuse

Great series;

I would suggest that you DO NOT PLAN where you go next. Simply drive, observe, and report what you see. That's what's missing in the WaPo - articles without any agenda. And that's what makes your series so refreshing to read.

Oh, and drive, don't fly. If you want to get even closer to your subject, try riding motorcycles. You will be shocked at how much more you experience. Well, maybe you could take turns with a side car. I would also recommend the three-wheel Can-Am Spyder from Yamaha for the more novice 2-up riders - a very nice, easy, ride.

Look around, ask questions, keep moving.

Posted by: Heerman532 | September 23, 2009 11:11 AM | Report abuse


Posted by: BARRY521 | September 23, 2009 11:16 AM | Report abuse

In this time of economic troubles with unemployment at or above 10% why is there no discussion about a moratorium on immigration?

We do we keep bringing in more than a million immigrants a year???

Posted by: seraphina | September 23, 2009 11:56 AM | Report abuse

@BARRY521, I'm sure she would, but she'd starve to death while she's looking. Have a heart, man. Its tough out here.

Posted by: antoniojbarnes | September 23, 2009 12:00 PM | Report abuse

Just curious. Does Dana have a drug or alcohol problem?

Posted by: demtse | September 23, 2009 12:02 PM | Report abuse

Just curious if Dana has a drug or alcohol problem?

Posted by: demtse | September 23, 2009 12:05 PM | Report abuse

Wondering if dana would work for 5$/hr.... seems like she might.... I doubt she has a desk and calculator to do her taxes... doubt she would get much of a refund... why not tax her less.

Seems the liberal answer for dana is... well screw her

Posted by: docwhocuts | September 23, 2009 12:10 PM | Report abuse

14 million unemployed and 12 million illegal aliens competing for jobs. Obama claims our economy will require 150,000 new jobs a month but yet we accept 125,000 legal immigrants a month.

Meanwhile, if you can afford, consider giving our fellow citizens a helping hand when they need it.

Posted by: hunter340 | September 23, 2009 12:10 PM | Report abuse

if anyone thinks obama cares about you...
you are so wrong...

Posted by: DwightCollins | September 23, 2009 12:18 PM | Report abuse

Get off of the immigrant bashing bandwagon already. If you wish to see a change, start with yourself. Be human.

Posted by: BettyGould | September 23, 2009 12:20 PM | Report abuse

Be strong Dana. Hang in there. There are a lot of people like her. "Boarder line homeless" and people that have some place to live but can't put food on the table. Plus we have people that actually work but are homeless.

It's rough out here.

Posted by: BigHustla | September 23, 2009 12:22 PM | Report abuse

"14 million unemployed and 12 million illegal aliens competing for jobs. Obama claims our economy will require 150,000 new jobs a month but yet we accept 125,000 legal immigrants a month."

Hey, here's a suggestion for all the immigrant-bashers: how about learning a skill? That way you won't be in a life-or-death struggle with Salvadorean peasants over who gets to scrape dirty dishes for $7.50/hour.

Posted by: antontuffnell | September 23, 2009 12:24 PM | Report abuse

Watch Michael Moore's new movie on capitalism.

It's bi-partisan, both parties suk at governing.

Wealth Gap Is Increasing, Study Shows

The rich really are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, a new University of Michigan study shows. Rising inequality isn't new. The gap between rich and poor started growing before Ronald Reagan took office, and it continued to widen through the Clinton years.

But what happened under Bush is something entirely unprecedented: For the first time in our history, so much growth is being siphoned off to a small, wealthy minority that most Americans are failing to gain ground even during a time of economic growth -- and they know it.

Posted by: kkrimmer | September 23, 2009 12:28 PM | Report abuse

It's bi-partisan, both parties suk at governing.

Right, except one party's policies are explicitly aimed at increasing that gap, while the other at least has a sizeable majority that is trying to close it.

Educate yourself.

Posted by: antontuffnell | September 23, 2009 12:34 PM | Report abuse

Are we suppose to feel sympathy for Dana? Well, I don't. Why isn't she looking for a job instead of panhandling? If she cares so much about her appearance (as you assert), why are her nails filthy as if she hasn't bathed? Why does she wear the big bandage? Probably as a bid for sympathy - a favorite ploy of panhandlers. If she's so destitute, why is she begging in Montgomery instead of Prince Georges? In my opinion, she's a fake just like the other panhandlers.

Posted by: Amelgepo | September 23, 2009 12:40 PM | Report abuse

What is wrong with you? Have you no decency?

Posted by: gce1356 | September 23, 2009 12:46 PM | Report abuse

What looks like a total lack of decency and compassion on the part of some posters may actually be rooted in fear. Trial lawyers will tell you that women jurors often tend to be unsympathetic toward rape victims because they have to believe that this cannot happen to them. The victim -- in rape, in poverty, homelessness, etc. -- must have done something or failed to do something that brought it on herself. The psychology is that if we hate the victim whatever it is won't happen to us. It's also related to a rather demented show of strength; the way animals will attack and shun injured members of their own pack. Somewhere in the deep recesses of our minds we believe weakness is a communicable disease. Sad.

Posted by: stan3 | September 23, 2009 1:01 PM | Report abuse

How many good paying jobs are now filled by H1-B Visa holders?

What are young Americans going to do when the best paying new jobs are all filled with legally-underpaid H1-B immigrants?

Posted by: AnAmericanFirst | September 23, 2009 1:06 PM | Report abuse

I should imagine that a young, good looking, young woman would receive a lot of help from passing cars. This opposed to a scruffy looking homeless person.

Posted by: davidwayneosedach | September 23, 2009 1:10 PM | Report abuse

Thank you both for an excellent series of articles.

Posted by: Bulldeazy | September 23, 2009 1:12 PM | Report abuse

It's bi-partisan, both parties suk at governing.

Right, except one party's policies are explicitly aimed at increasing that gap, while the other at least has a sizeable majority that is trying to close it.

Educate yourself.

Posted by: antontuffnell | September 23, 2009 12:34 PM

Provided you take them at their word.

There's been a bipartisan effort to protect big business and shaft the American worker for generations. Bush AND Clinton rammed through NAFTA; bye bye manufacturing jobs. Clinton told you to train for new, better jobs. But instead they opened the floodgates to H1Bs, who will do your job for less. Both parties maintain that situation. Leaving the borders open undercut working Americans at the bottom, while businesses got cheap workers and middle class taxpayers footed the bill for education for their kids and health care.

If you think Dems are all that concerned about working people, ask yourself: why did Dems vote to increase protections for credit card issuers when individuals file for bankruptcy? When was the last time bankruptcy laws were tightened up for business? (You can't duck a credit card bill in bankruptcy, but companies can abandon pensioners and unilaterally end union contracts, where's the justice in THAT?!) How come Dems fell over themselves bailing out big banks and Wall Street? And if they needed the money so much, how come they all gave it back when people said, if you take it, you can't pay the outrageous salaries to your executives?

It's all a big con game, and Americans stay fooled. The moneyed interests have bets on both sides, so their interests are protected no matter who wins. You walk into a bank and rob it, you have the FBI on your case. Bank robs you, you get to go to arbitration, where a guy who depends on banks for repeat business decides the issue.

Posted by: gbooksdc | September 23, 2009 1:14 PM | Report abuse

@ Amelgepo, "why are her fingernails filthy as if she hasn't bathed", what does it matter? I suspect if she were "cleaned up" you would have the same response. It's so much easier to judge someone than to imagine what their life might be like. And you may be correct, Dana may be a fake. But here's the thing, I suspect everyone that has posted here has more than enough to eat and a place to live. Giving to someone who MAY appear needy is better than tearing them down and finding fault with them, in my opinion. It always amazes me how we can protect animals with an undying vengeance, but treat humans as less than dirt. Go figure.....

Posted by: getaclue3 | September 23, 2009 1:15 PM | Report abuse

I agree with the close-the-borderists. Maybe we won't give a crap about every last poor American or legal naturalized or permanent resident soul until we are forced to hire them.

When they start recruiting on Native American reservations I'll believe we have a labor shortage that justifies immigrants.

Otherwise we need some stimulus to force our employers to beat the bushes in the inner cities, the South, the reservations, Appalachia, the Pacific Northwest, New England, and every corner of America.

And get the illegals out.

We have already established that Americans are sarting to take the jobs the immigration activists said they would never take, that only the immigrants would take.

Posted by: cmarshdtihqcom | September 23, 2009 1:31 PM | Report abuse

It's a numbers game people.

We want people employed. We want unemployment to disappear.

Maybe if we had to put every last Dana on the dole indefinitely while she was unemployed, you'd get it.

Some countries "owe" their citizens a safety net. Nobody owes illegals anything.
Why hire an illegal and put a citizen on the dole, or put the illegal with fake papers on the dole, when the citizen could be employed? Either way you slice it, illegals frequently cause harm to society as a whole either by displacing citizens as workers or by going on the dole. I wonder if other countries prosecute illegals worse than we do. North Korea and Iran don't seem to deal lightly with visitors without permission.

Posted by: cmarshdtihqcom | September 23, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

To those who blame the immigrant population: jobs immigrants take are not jobs Americans want, at least not at the wages currently offered. If the wages were increased, the product prices would also increase, since no company would want to cut into its profit margins. Believe me, the agricultural and the service industry would suffer heavily without illegal immigration. As for those who are here legally, they struggle just as much if not more and are rarely thanked for the work that they do. You should be ashamed of yourselves for not being compassionate and human. Blame the government, blame border control, blame the conditions in their counrties of origin and the businesses that pursue predatory practices when it comes to their immigrant employees, but don't blame the people who come here for a better life. Or have the words inscibed on the statute of liberty entirely lost their meaning as soon as the American citizenry started to feel the pinch?

As for people like Dana. Looking for a job can be a full time job. Who is going to pay the bills in the meantime? Feed the children? Take care of that house she barely owns? Do you know how many veterans are out on the streets without a job and a home? How dare you claim that all panhandlers are fake?! Have you ever been in such need and had nowhere to turn to? It seems a real shame that when times get tough people become cruel. They were probably cruel all along, but come out with it now that such behavior is more acceptable. Too bad most of them are probably christian, and quite possibly go to church on Sunday. Where is the charity and mercy and compassion that should set you appart from the rest?
To the writers, this has been a pleasure to read all summer. I can't think of another place you can visit that would be emblematic, although I agree with the suggestion above. Get in a car and drive - people are being hit hard everywhere, from Washington DC to the ranches in Texas, West of East. It's a tapestry of financial disaster stories. Follow some of the healthcare carrivans that provode free/cheap care to those who can't afford it. Talk to the immigrants whose fates have not become any easier. And please continue writing.

Posted by: ltrig7 | September 23, 2009 1:40 PM | Report abuse

Since she is holding on to her apt. I guessing she is getting rental assistance. Maybe Dana should apply @ McDonalds until she can find something better.

Posted by: bobby20 | September 23, 2009 1:47 PM | Report abuse

Get a skill....

Sure, and some idiot who thinks your personality doesn't fit his or her organization won't hire you after an interview.

And while you are without a job with health insurance you might get cancer and end up paying two or three thousand dollars.

That was me before 1999.

The State of Maryland was more than convinced to put me through its computer programming VR program.

To the shame of 35 interviewers, I already had a Master's degree.

Posted by: cmarshdtihqcom | September 23, 2009 1:48 PM | Report abuse

She would have to lie if she had an education to get a job with McD. She would also have to deny any job that suggested an education (all Work Study jobs, any job associated with a higher education institution, any job requiring anything more than a high school diploma).

McD wants dumb people. I tried McD in WV several times with a college degree and once with a Master's. Mega fail.

Posted by: cmarshdtihqcom | September 23, 2009 1:50 PM | Report abuse

stan3 - you are so right. The posters bashing this woman, who really have no idea of her whole story - are doing it out of fear that they will be next. It is a knee=jerk psychological defense of distancing oneself from something one doesn't want to look at.

I found this one especially transparent:

"In my opinion, she's a fake just like the other panhandlers."

Amazing that someone here has gotten a hold of her medical records to know that the cast is phony - all without even knowing her last name. But I'm sure that helps the poster drive past more easily.

Posted by: B2O2 | September 23, 2009 1:53 PM | Report abuse

"Hey, here's a suggestion for all the immigrant-bashers: how about learning a skill? That way you won't be in a life-or-death struggle with Salvadorean peasants over who gets to scrape dirty dishes for $7.50/hour."

Hey, here's a suggestion for all of the illegal-immigrant-lovers: how about the Salvadorean illegalito learns a skill at home? That way he won't be in a life-or-death struggle with a US citizen or legal immigrant over who gets to scrape dirty dishes for $7.50/hour.

Posted by: JoStalin | September 23, 2009 2:26 PM | Report abuse

"MAYBE..JUST MAYBE DANA COULD BE USING HER TIME TO BE MORE PRODUCTIVE...LIKE LOOKING FOR A JOB INSTEAD OF A HANDOUT" Could be she is doing both. She's having a tough time and the cynics all assume the wrong things about her.

Posted by: rias2500 | September 23, 2009 2:27 PM | Report abuse

"Or have the words inscibed on the statute of liberty entirely lost their meaning as soon as the American citizenry started to feel the pinch?"

Sorry. So far as I'm concerned, we already have our quota of tired, poor, hungry teeming masses that are yearning to be free. Check back in a generation, though. We might have some extra room then. In the interim, we should just put a sign over that drivel that says "No Vacancy".

Posted by: JoStalin | September 23, 2009 2:36 PM | Report abuse

I am totally amazed at the people who judge and blame this woman without really knowing anything about her and her story. We know she was panhandling in MC and we know she was wearing a floral dress and holding a sign and what it said. We have no knowledge of her injury or illness, how she lost her job or what kind of support if any she has received including her success at panhandling.

We don't know enough to judge her but we do know enough to express compassion, good will and at least understand even if we cannot lend help.

Jumping to conclusions just reveals our prejudices.

Posted by: roxroe | September 23, 2009 2:50 PM | Report abuse

To All of You Who Disagree With Me:
I have a right to my opinion and you have a right to yours. You object to my viewpoint of Dana, yet you proceed to pyschoanalyze me and my motives! How hypocritical of you.

Posted by: Amelgepo | September 23, 2009 2:54 PM | Report abuse

People are so quick to blame Obama for the disastrous economic distress that we're facing. Where is George Bush in all this? This is something that was well created before Obama's entry of office. Where are all the big time execs who capitalized off the vulnerability of OUR country's money system? Could that be the real unpublished reason why so many big businesses went out of business. Or did greed play a heavy role? Had slavery still existed, it would had been easy to get out of this distress, right? Now, there will need to be a brand new system created to shed America of its financial issues. And if Obama can pull a nation out of this ridiculous crisis within a year's time we should all call him GOD. Back to Dana, is she on drugs?

Posted by: beautifiedone | September 23, 2009 2:59 PM | Report abuse

This was one of my favorite WaPo series. You guys did AMAZING work! Congratulations!

Posted by: wheels979 | September 23, 2009 3:22 PM | Report abuse

If you wish to see a change, start with yourself. POSTED by BettyGould --

Evidence proves all too conclusively that our country has a BIG stack of problems.

No solution will happen all at once. For long years there has been this perception that our problems will come and go as quickly as they arrived.

Do the math, we have compound problems and need to solve our own problems before we can solve the problems of others.

Then the road to recovery will domino for us all, including the homeless, the jobless, the hungry.

SIDEBAR topic: journalism should be about telling the truth, enriching and touching lives and not about winning awards. The telling of the story is the reward. Journalists should not be placed above people who don't tell stories.

We are all equal in the pursuit of human enrichment.

Posted by: washedlikeadish | September 23, 2009 5:05 PM | Report abuse

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