In a small, sparsely furnished two-bedroom apartment, the Salters family is trying to build a new life.
The physical framework is in place: a yard-sale sofa and dining table. Donated mattresses. Plastic place mats from the Dollar Store. A $70 pawnshop television and a thrift shop train set for the two boys.
The homeless shelter is weeks behind them, the drugs and alcohol further than that. The mother and father have landed jobs that pay a bit more than minimum wage. The older boy is in school, the younger in day care.
But the emotional foundation is still under construction.
"Sometimes," Regina Salters says, "I just bust out and cry because there's a part of me that's screaming out for help." The help she yearns for would give her confidence, reassurance, faith that everything will work out. She knows no one can provide what she wants.
But recently, the Salters family received another sort of help.
On April 5, the Salterses were included in a Washington Post article about a homeless shelter where they were staying, and strangers responded. The family's determination to stay together prompted gifts of nearly $10,000, a used car and a three-week rent-free stay in one family's Capitol Hill home.
The donations will cover for the next two years much of the $560 monthly rent on the Salterses' apartment in Kingman Park, a working-class neighborhood in Northeast Washington. Unlike others in their situation, they now have some security as they try to attain self-sufficiency. But many of the problems they face -- the lure of the old life, the fear of failing at the new, the everyday challenges of moving beyond self-destructive habits -- are common among people who end up in shelters and on the streets.
Can the Salters family make it? So far, no one, including them, knows.
Caseworkers and others assisting the family say they are optimistic about the Salterses' chances. But in her sleep, Regina Salters still sees herself with the friend who gave her that first cocaine-spiked marijuana cigarette. In his dream, Charles Salters sits on the stoop with his old buddies, drinking. Regina says she has not used drugs in a year. Charles says he has not had a drink since mid-February.
But Regina says, "I don't care how long you been clean, you always on thin ice."
Getting Back on Their Feet
It's 2:30 on a sunny Wednesday afternoon as Regina Salters and her two sons board their sixth Metrobus of the day. Her collection of bus tokens, issued by one of their case managers to help them get on their feet, has dwindled today by 12.
Over the weekend, 11-year-old Jeree asked for a token to get to a city library and log onto an Internet chat room about the wild animals he loves.
"I had to tell him no," Regina says. For now, until they get their car, tokens must be hoarded. Each one represents another leg on the family's quest to establish its life here.
As the A8 rolls through Anacostia, Jeree, a quiet, serious-natured child with big dark eyes and a slight stutter, stares straight ahead. Regina wipes the nose of 3-year-old Charles Jr., an affectionate toddler who sneezes and wheezes throughout the pollen-laden day.
Jeree squirms around in his seat, and Regina -- self-conscious in front of a reporter -- reprimands him. "Sit down. Sit still," Regina says. "Don't you be showing off. If you don't start behaving, I'm not taking you to the zoo this weekend."
Her tone with Jeree is sharp, but Regina clearly loves her son very much -- she is trying to transform her life so he doesn't relive it. Regina wants everything to go perfectly, and sometimes when it doesn't, she feels life is flying out of control. In her frustration, she grows testy.
Troubles Took Time
It took years for the couple's lives to unravel. For him, there was alcohol. For her, a broken relationship: Her companion, Jeree's father, left them, and she turned to drugs.
Regina, 34, and Charles, 47, became involved seven years ago and married two years ago. They were in and out of a series of low-paying, low-skilled jobs and various apartments and houses. They ended up on welfare.
On March 9, when they realized they would have to leave the apartment in Camden, N.J., where they were staying, they decided, as Regina puts it, "to go somewhere and start over fresh."
That day, Regina and Charles and their sons arrived in Washington with one-way bus tickets. They carried two plastic bags of clothes and $32. The Salterses found their way to the District's winter shelter for homeless families, a low-rise complex of cinder-block buildings enveloped by the stench of a nearby sewage treatment plant. Although they had great hopes when they arrived, the shelter was scheduled to close March 31, and they discovered there was a long waiting list for other emergency family housing. They were suddenly without options. One temporary solution to the problem, some suggested, would be to place their sons in foster care so that Regina and Charles could live in the District's emergency shelters for single adults. They would not do it.
It was a terrible time. "I started feeling bad about things," the tall, lanky Charles says. He has a soft-spoken demeanor, which usually is overridden by Regina's outspoken nature. "I was blaming myself for everything. You don't know how low I felt."
City and shelter officials ultimately kept D.C. Village open an extra month until all of the remaining families had places to go. And then came The Post article, and a few more possibilities presented themselves to the Salters family.
Some of the early donations went directly for a thrift store shopping trip for the family. The rest of the donations were turned over to Capitol Hill Group Ministries, which is working with the Salterses and several other families from the winter shelter. The charitable organization, made up of 21 member churches, coordinates congregation-based shelter for several dozen homeless families. The group is under contract with the Community Partnership to Prevent Homelessness, which operates the District's homeless shelter program.
The purpose of the financial arrangement with the Ministries is to make sure the money is put to good use and to avoid endangering the family's eligibility for public assistance. The Ministries also will offer them supportive social services for as many as two years, as it does to other homeless families.
One District woman, who sent them $500, included this note, which Regina carries with her: "I, at a very young age, was also in a homeless shelter with my mom and my other siblings. . . . We were also receiving public assistance. It was a very difficult time for us but we made it. I believe you can and will make it too."
The money is immensely helpful, but Regina Salters says the response also has nourished their self-confidence. "An encouraging word, to hang in there, that helps us a lot, too," she says. "Just for somebody to say you can make it."
Avoiding the Traps
The travails of the past are marked on their bodies and in their stories. Regina bears scars on her face, neck and arms from violent beatings by a man she once lived with, and Charles, a Vietnam War veteran who says he suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome, has his own history of failed relationships.
Regina and Charles both consider him Jeree's father, although in fact he is not. Charles himself has an adult daughter and two other sons who live with their mother in Pennsylvania. He is supposed to be paying child support for them, but he has not paid consistently and is under court order to do so.
"I was always concerned about taking care of my kids, but there were things that put me away from it," he says. "That's what I'm doing here now. I'm trying to get my life together."
As they solidify their lives, they still see pitfalls all around them.
Recently, when Regina heard that Charles's grandmother had died, she did not want to tell him the news. If he went back to New Jersey for the funeral, she feared, he might run into the old temptations or the wrong people. But she felt so guilty, selfish. By the end of the day, she told Charles of his grandmother's death -- but also that she did not want him to go to the funeral.
Charles understood and stayed home. A few weeks later, feeling stronger, they all made a day trip back to visit his family. They returned ecstatic. The trip had gone well.
People who have worked with the Salterses say they have some key strengths. They have aggressively used the District's social service network to get somewhere, not just to survive. They have pushed case managers to help them find an apartment and jobs, a driver's license for Charles, information about a training program for Regina and a day-care center for little Charles.
Both Regina and Charles Salters graduated from high school, and they have worked much of their adult lives. And they understand the value of leaving behind bad influences, or -- as some substance abuse counselors say -- walking away from the hot dog vendor. If you hang around the hot dog stand long enough, the saying goes, you're going to end up buying one.
"They keep me going," says Jerome Miller, the employment coordinator for the Virginia Williams Family Resource Center in Southwest Washington, which serves homeless families. "It's very, very hard to work with an unmotivated client. A lot of them take the opportunity to take a very long vacation" while in a shelter.
The Salterses are attending Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and recently signed a responsibility agreement with Capitol Hill Group Ministries pledging to keep their home in good condition and to remain drug-free. They also are planning for the future. Charles is studying to get his commercial driver's license and wants a job driving heavy equipment, as he once had in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. For now, he's ferrying rental cars around Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
Regina wants to enter a training program to become a nurse's aide. She saw her own mother get off welfare and become a licensed practical nurse through such a program. For now, Regina's working at a hotel in Chevy Chase and last week got a promotion from dishwasher to housekeeper.
But despite their motivation and desire, a successful turnaround will not be easily accomplished. "It's not just about a house, a car or a job," says Lynne Kneedler, the executive director of Capitol Hill Group Ministries. "It's a kind of rebuilding of the spirit that gets people to the place where they're airborne and they can continue to make it all happen."
A Place to Call Home
Asked what the happiest moment of his young life has been, Jeree says, "When I came to Washington." His memories of Camden: violent, stinky, threatening, dirty. "Every corner you turn, people are bummy."
"Here," he says with resolute certainty, "it's not a whole bunch of violence. . . . It smells good. It's beautiful. It's a lot of gardens when it's springtime. All the apartments are nice in Washington. There's more good people than bad people like in Camden."
His parents also see Washington as their city of opportunity.
"I'm sick and tired of being drunk, and I'm sick and tired of making excuses, and I'm sick and tired of seeing everybody else's kids getting ice cream and I can't afford to get ice cream for my kids," Charles says.
"I figure we'd start off in a shelter and go up from there."
CAPTION: Charles and Regina Salters share a moment with son Charles Jr., 3. The family's determination to stay together prompted gifts of nearly $10,000.
CAPTION: Regina and Charles Salters have been married two years and rent an apartment in Kingman Park. Regina Salters said, "An encouraging word, to hang in there, that helps a lot."
CAPTION: Regina Salters takes son Charles Jr. to preschool. The family relies on buses and walking to get to work and school.