by John Kelly, columnist
The Washington Post
November 27, 2014
On Monday, Marilyn Wills pondered her menu for this year’s Thanksgiving dinner. Ham, for a change, she thought. She couldn’t help but think about last year’s Thanksgiving. She and her son, Michael, now 14, and her 5-year-old granddaughter, Precious, had gone out for carryout.
They were at D.C. General then, the shelter for homeless families in the city. The staff there, Marilyn said, prepares a nice Thanksgiving meal, but it seemed wrong to get comfortable and celebrate the holiday in a place so dire.
“I always told my son we don’t live at D.C. General,” Marilyn said. “We stay at D.C. General.”
Marilyn grew up in Southeast Washington near Texas Avenue, in the neighborhood called Shrimp Boat. Her adoptive father drove a taxi for 20 years. Her adoptive mother had a job disassembling rats. (She dissected the rodents as a researcher at the Department of Agriculture.)
A day before Marilyn’s graduation from H.D. Woodson, Marilyn’s mother died of cancer. Her father died four months later. She often thinks about how her life might have been different had her parents lived.
“Let’s say that ’91 was not a good year for me,” said Marilyn, 43.
Still, at first Marilyn was able to work even though she had a young child, Breana. (Precious’s mother lives in Baltimore and is unable to care for her.)
Then Marilyn started using drugs. I pointed out that this was the 1990s, when the city was awash in crack cocaine. A lot of people in Washington stumbled.
“My thing was, to me my drug was harmless, because I was doing PCP,” Marilyn said with a bitter laugh. “Everyone else was heroin and crack. I was better than. But I did.”
Marilyn’s addiction made it hard for her to work. She lost her job with a cleaning company.
“I’d get paid and not come back Monday,” she said. “Typical drug stuff.”
Marilyn was fortunate to get into a year-long recovery program while her sister took care of Breana. Besides getting clean, something else good came of that year: Marilyn met her husband, Dion. Both sang in the choirs of their rehab programs, she with Community Action Group, he with the Salvation Army.
She gave birth to their son, Michael, and had a stable life: apartment, jobs, a car.
In 2012, the couple separated. Without her husband’s income and unable to work because she was caring for her granddaughter, Marilyn fell behind on the rent. She was evicted in October of 2013.
And so began a month of wandering. Marilyn and the kids stayed with different friends. They slept atop the grates at the Anacostia and Petworth Metro stations. They were huddled in the hallway of a building when they got word that they could move to D.C. General.
Marilyn found it ironic. “I was born at D.C. General,” she said. “My kids were born at D.C. General.”
Marilyn immediately made a vow: She would not stay long. She was teamed up with a case manager from Community of Hope, a partner with The Washington Post in its Helping Hand fundraising program.
Homeless families in Washington are helped in different ways. After being accepted into D.C. General, or a room in one of the hotels the city leases, they are assessed. Some qualify for permanent supportive housing, a long-term, multi-year arrangement for families crippled by physical or mental disabilities or addiction.
Other families, like Marilyn’s, enter what’s called rapid rehousing. They sign a lease for an apartment and pay a small portion of the rent. The arrangements typically last a year, enough time to escape from the free fall they find themselves in.
“Within that year, they help you get established,” Marilyn said. “They help you with employment. They’re constantly helping you.”
Marilyn and the kids were able to receive medical and dental care at the Conway Health and Resource Center, a clinic Community of Hope runs in Southwest. An employment counselor helped her look for work and coached her through mock job interviews.
“I didn’t even know that Community of Hope did so much,” Marilyn said. On April 1, Community of Hope helped her move into her own apartment not far from Gallaudet University. She has a line on a job as a security guard. (“The lady was like, ‘Can you work weekends?’ ” Marilyn said. “I was like, ‘I can work weekends, weekdays, holidays...’”)
Her son and granddaughter are in school, and Michael’s grades are improving after the disruption of being homeless. Recently, Marilyn reconnected with her biological father, who has kicked his heroin addiction.
And she and her husband are working on their marriage. She hopes they’ll be back together again soon.
“I’m actually happy now,” said Marilyn. “I can’t wait to start cooking.”
Thankful for a Helping Hand
You can contribute to Community of Hope by visiting www.posthelpinghand.com and clicking where it says “Donate.” To give by mail, send a check payable to “Community of Hope” to: Community of Hope, Attn: Helping Hand, 4 Atlantic St. SW, Washington, D.C. 20032.
This column originally appeared in The Washington Post on November 27, 2014.