Written by Tamika Hawkins, Legal Clinic summer law fellow and rising 3L at Howard University School of Law.
She couldn’t have been a day over 25. As she sat on the cement steps of the Family Resource Center on N Street N.E., I wondered about her story. Because everyone has a story. Some believable, others hard to believe, but a story nonetheless. I had signed up to do outreach for the Clinic that week, so I was standing on the sidewalk to hand out fliers.
I was initially drawn to her daughter, a precocious kid – I think she told me she was seven – who talked to me about the summer heat and being on break from school. She was playful as she climbed up and down the steps and swung on the railings. I wondered just how much she understood about the pain, tiredness and sadness in her mother’s eyes. I vacillated speaking to the little girl’s mom, but in between her many back-to-back phone calls, I found the window of opportunity.
After a brief introduction, she took the flier with much appreciation. Just minutes later, she readily opened up. The woman, dressed in jeans and a bright-colored shirt, was a mother of four and homeless. We talked about all the avenues of possibility, each of which she’d gone down and back. Then suddenly, in the midst of our conversation, her cell phone rang. I heard countless thank yous, as I eagerly waited with anticipation.
“We got a room!” she shared, her face finally showing a glimmer of hope. “At least it has a door.” Still, internally, I wanted more. I wanted the person on the other end of that phone to have somehow worked a miracle and a half to keep her and her kids off the street. I wanted a mystery fund to have appeared that would at least allow her time to get on her feet for the next few months. I wondered how five people would fare in such a finite amount of space. Then I realized that while it wasn’t my hope for her, at least it was safe. Getting this room meant that she and her four children could move out of the vacant apartment that yielded no remote guarantee of safety.
Hearing the good news, her daughter began to fire off question after question about their new place. Before she could answer, the phone rang again. In a matter of seconds, she found herself right back at square one. As it turned out, the young woman was short $200 and the landlord refused to budge. Even with four children in the balance. Having nothing more to leverage, she ended the conversation. “I understand.”
An indescribable look of defeat enveloped her face. It hit me hard. But with everything in me, I pulled out the most confidence I could muster and told her that everything would be OK. She agreed that God would never put more on us than we can handle. I smiled and slowly headed back to the Metro station replaying the scenario on repeat.
As I walked down the street in NoMa, a newly revitalized neighborhood lined with beautiful buildings and luxury apartments, I couldn’t help but sense the disparity. A mere two blocks away, a woman, whose name I never got, sat waiting for an intervention. Waiting for a place to call home. Or at least some temporary safe shelter.
The next day, I shared the experience with a few colleagues. It fueled me. It inspired me. It made me work that much harder to live out the Clinic’s mission of fighting for housing justice and affordability in the District. And though I don’t know how the day ended for that young mom, I can only hope that she knew at least one person that afternoon, was in her corner.