“Baby,” her mother, Cartrice Haynesworth, says, “you know I don’t have the money this year.” She reminds her daughter that they’ll be going to the cafeteria soon, and she can pick out a donated present.
The girl nods.
This Christmas, as songs about being home for the holidays fill the air, D.C. General is filled to capacity with 950 homeless people, a population that has quadrupled since 2007 and continues to grow.
Five hundred and twelve of them are children. Each one of them, like Christmas, like any child, has a dream of what this most magical day should be like.
Christmas leans back against the wall, her blond Barbie in hand, and describes her dream: a Christmas morning with a big tree with sparkling lights, like the one she used to lie under when she and her mom had an apartment of their own, just because the sight was so pretty. She imagines beautifully wrapped presents.
When she thinks of all the toys she has loved, she doesn’t think of the bike, the skates or the telescope that she and her mother left out on the sidewalk, along with all the other possessions they couldn’t carry when they were evicted from their one-bedroom place in July.
Instead, Christmas thinks of a paint set and coloring book she had when she was 9. She painted every picture in that book.
She painted everything she could find until the paints ran out. That’s what she wants this year — “Some stuff for painting,” she says. “And that’s about it.”
Cartrice Haynesworth, 43, also has a Christmas dream: cooking Chicken Delight, one of Christmas’s favorite meals, in a kitchen of her own with Christmas and her three other grown children around her. She dreams of a job working in the kitchen of the Grand Hyatt hotel, learning how to make new foods and meeting people from all over the world. “Sweet baby Jesus, how I pray for that,” she says, looking up at the ceiling. She says she’s waiting to have surgery for a health problem before she applies.
Without the surgery, Haynesworth says, she lost her job as a driver transporting special-needs kids in July because she missed too much work. With no income, she lost the one-bedroom apartment she and Christmas shared. The two bounced around between friends and family members and life on the streets.
Haynesworth tried for four months to get into the shelter, only to be told there was no room. She feared Christmas would be taken away from her because her daughter had no stable place to stay, like 2,300 other homeless children in D.C. public schools. Then she testified before the District’s Health and Human Services Committee on Oct. 29, and within hours, she and Christmas were given a room.
Christmas refuses to talk about the months of sleeping under bridges and on benches in Union Station and staying up all night at McDonald’s before they arrived at the shelter. “It was scary,” she whispers.
She wanders out into the hallway. At the shelter, there isn’t a whole lot to do. She stays in the room with her mother. Sometimes she plays hide-and-seek with her best friend, 8-year-old Aniyah Payne.
“This is our hideout,” Aniyah says, jumping up on a counter near the back of the community room.
“It’s not that fun,” Christmas says, smirking at the wide-open room. “There aren’t that many good places to hide.”
Danielle Rothman, site manager for the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, said she sometimes sees Christmas and other kids at the shelter just roaming the halls.
“I’ve gone sometimes and seen kids playing with paper cups or cardboard boxes. It just makes you want to cry,” she said.
The girls put on their jackets to go outside with their mothers. Aniyah will spend Christmas Day with her father and his family. Christmas, who has never met her father, will be in the shelter with her mother, doing, she says, “nothing.”
Sometimes, the two girls play tag. But there is only one long sidewalk that connects the shelter to the nearby jail and meth clinic. So their mothers let them run only as far as the bus shelter, about 100 yards away.
On this day, the mothers join a mass of adults, some with toddlers or babies in strollers, huddled under a long, thin cement overhang and smoking. The girls stay in the lobby, faces pressed against the glass, looking out on the parking lot and talking about Santa Claus.
They both believe he’s real. Christmas thinks he’ll come to the shelter this year. Aniyah doesn’t.
“He don’t have a chimney,” Aniyah says. “He would have to sign himself in and walk his fat self up the stairs.” And get his bag of toys through the metal detector near the front entrance. Security guards on every floor control the elevators.
When the time comes to go to the cafeteria to pick out one of the hundreds of unwrapped donated presents, the girls eagerly line up, their eyes shining at the sight of the tables piled high with every kind of toy.
Aniyah grabs an electronic keyboard. Christmas quickly scans for paints, but, in the feverish rush, snatches a cake-pop maker.
Once they return to their room, Haynesworth reads the directions on the cake-pop maker box. “You can’t open this until we get a refrigerator.”
“I have a play refrigerator in my room,” Aniyah says hopefully.
Haynesworth looks at her daughter.
“I wish I had a diamond to give you for Christmas.”
Christmas shakes her head.
“What would I do with it?”
The girl looks at the wall she’s decorated for the holiday with silver stars and a paper chain garland she made. She puts the pretty pink cake-pop box on the floor just below the garland and leaves it there, unopened.