"I am here to change the poverty in my life."
The 12 women standing in the conference room of a homeless shelter in Fairfax County shifted uncomfortably as they recited together.
Their words came out as a reluctant rumble.
"Poverty takes many forms," they read from sheets of paper. "It is more than a lack of money and material things."
It was the first class in a 10-week Out of Poverty program offered by New Hope Housing, a nonprofit agency in the Alexandria section of Fairfax. The women were reciting Out of Poverty's "assembling statement," as they would before each class at New Hope Housing's Mondloch House.
But the opening chapter of what was supposed to be a three-month odyssey toward building a better life was less than promising.
One woman had come into the class, red-eyed with exhaustion, and put her head on a table. This was her second time in a New Hope shelter and, she complained, she had already taken the class.
Another participant announced that her husband, not her, was the one who needed the program. And a third asked hopefully if she could leave when she couldn't find her name tag.
On one side of the room, 36-year-old Milagros "Milli" Wright -- coppery blond hair elaborately coiffed and her makeup perfect -- didn't join the grousing.
She told the group that she lived in Springfield with her five children. All but one are girls.
"Boys would be easier," she told them in a sugary voice overlaid with a broad Brooklyn accent. With a laugh, she complained about the high price of shampoo and makeup.
What this suburban mom didn't have to say was where she came from.
A former drug addict, Wright is working to overhaul her life after two years in Fairfax and Arlington jails on drug-related charges and after more than two decades of a chaotic, out-of-control existence.
Formerly homeless, she and her kids are living temporarily in a transitional housing program in Springfield, run by New Hope Housing, while she gets on her feet.
Born poor to a 15-year-old mother in the Brooklyn projects, "all my life I was told by my family, 'You're not going to amount to nothing,' " Wright said.
But Milli Wright is determined to prove them wrong.
Out of Poverty, designed a decade ago by a Catholic Charities social worker and an academic in Memphis, is intended to help lift the poor out of the orbit of poverty.
New Hope, the largest provider of housing and services for the homeless in Fairfax County, began offering the Out of Poverty program four years ago on a limited basis, said Pam Michell, the agency's executive director. Now it is mandatory for New Hope program participants. Out of Poverty "deals with this whole concept of poverty as something more than just not having enough money in your life," Michell said.
"There was so much going on with residents that was internal -- [low] self-esteem, lack of vision, attitude issues," said Michell. "We wanted something that would get at them with a more holistic approach."
Wright's past is a variation on many of the women's stories -- born poor, dragged down by early motherhood, drugs and bad relationships until she crash-landed into homelessness and jail. For this article, The Washington Post agreed to withhold the women's names to protect their privacy; Wright consented to having her name used.
One of Wright's first memories of poverty was trudging to school in the snow without a coat or socks.
She spent her childhood -- what there was of it -- shuttling between her grandparents, impoverished immigrants from Puerto Rico, and her mother.
She imagined that when she grew up, she would live in a pretty house with a stable husband and children. But at home, family members' money went to feed drug addictions.
"There was never no structure," she recalled. "No 'Hey, go get a job, go to school.' . . . No guidance. No telling me right from wrong."
When Wright asked for money for ice cream, she was handed a packet of marijuana to sell to earn the money for the treat. While walking home from school one day, she said, she saw her uncle shot to death. She was 8.
Eventually, the toxic maelstrom of drugs, economic deprivation and family dysfunction sucked her in. By the time she was 13, Wright was skipping school and drinking heavily. By 16, she was pregnant. By 17, she was a high school dropout in Fairfax County, where she had moved after her mother's stint in the Army. By 18, Wright was smoking crack.
Over the next 10 years, four more children followed. So did a life that careened from middle-class to poverty, depending on the man in her life. She was arrested several times on drug and other charges that resulted in suspended sentences and probation.
Many days, she locked herself in the bathroom away from her kids and sucked on a crack pipe. When money was tight, she traded sex for drugs.
Nevertheless, beneath the self-destruction and the street attitude, the determined little girl who had walked to school coatless and without socks remained.
"I always wanted to change," she recalled. "I just didn't know how. I wasn't strong enough, and I didn't know what to do."
The force that finally knocked her into recovery was jail.
In 2001, she went to prison on a probation violation. While serving 18 months in the Arlington County jail, she was enrolled in its addiction, corrections and treatment unit, an alcohol and drug-abuse rehabilitation program.
In the unit, "I got to sit down and evaluate myself and decide who I was and what I wanted," Wright said.
What she decided was that she had to change. She got her GED and resolved to put her life on a better course.
When she was released from jail in August 2003, she separated from her husband -- "I changed, he stayed the same" -- and went to court to regain custody of her children, who had been living with her sister.
They moved into Shelter House, a homeless shelter in the Falls Church area. Wright taught herself how to write a resume and initially got a job as a salesclerk at a Kmart. She enrolled in Project Stride, run by New Hope Housing, which provides two years of low-cost housing and other services to help families gain a stable financial footing.
Last year, she took a sociology course at Northern Virginia Community College. She plans to continue her schooling so she can counsel teenagers.
The situation isn't perfect at home. She's still mending relations with her children -- her four daughters, ages 7, 9, 13 and 14, and a 15-year-old son -- after years of drugs and jail. But now she spends her afternoons with her children and cooks recipes she downloads from the Internet.
"I love it. It feels so good," she said.
"She is probably the most resilient client that I have," said Gus Joseph, Wright's case manager at New Hope Housing. "She has overcome a lot of obstacles."
"I am willing to challenge poverty in all its forms. Through the ministries of these companions and with the intervention of the active goodness that seeks me out, I can be free."
Pushed and prodded by Yvonne Kedoin and her co-facilitator, Logan Alley, the women in Out of Poverty gradually thawed.
To each other, they talked about their attempts to climb into society's mainstream and the humiliation that could bring.
One participant recalled landing a job at an assisted living facility that was willing to overlook her drug conviction. But the offer was abruptly withdrawn. A background check revealed she had also been convicted of assault a decade ago. She'd stabbed her boyfriend, she said, when he beat her up.
During one class, they pasted collages of their goals from magazine clippings -- big houses, sleek cars, expensive clothing, a good man -- and wrote down goals.
For many, it was the first time they'd been asked to think on that kind of scale.
Wright's collage featured a lavishly furnished bedroom, a photo of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) -- "strong women," Wright had written underneath it -- and a magnificent house overlooking a sun-drenched beach -- "home."
Not all the collages were expressions of hope.
A sad-eyed woman in the back of the room pasted only a few small clippings -- a modest house, a television, a computer.
"I see the basic necessities," Wright said to her. "Is there anything else you want -- any dreams?"
"No," the woman said in a low monotone. "This is what I want right now."
"I'm not trying to be nosy," Wright said. "But did something happen to crush your dreams?"
The woman stared down at her collage.
"I had these things taken away from me," she said. "I just want them back."
For a few seconds, the room was quiet.
But among others the talk was about marrying, losing weight and buying nice cars, a home, pretty clothes.
"What would it take to make that picture a reality?" Kedoin asked them.
There was silence.
"Hard work," somebody finally said.
"Money," said someone else.
In groups, they tried to put together a budget for a $5.15-an-hour minimum-wage job.
But after toting up dollars to buy groceries and pay rent and other bills, they were horrified to find that an income of $824 a month didn't even cover the minimum living standards in the Washington area.
For Wright, those numbers were all too real.
From her current part-time job at a Springfield baby-products retailer, she brings home $800 a month after court costs and other state fines are deducted from her paycheck.
That's manageable for now, because she pays only $200 in rent. But the transitional housing program she is in finishes in four months, and she will need to move out.
"I keep going round and around in a circle," she told the class one night, wiping her eyes. "It's the story of my life."
The women tried to comfort her.
"God will show you the path," said one woman. "Tell yourself you will be fine. Create a new reality."
"But this is reality," Wright sobbed.
"I am prepared to reassess the choices and actions that have led me here, and I desire to reform my life. . . . I will wait and work in hopeful anticipation, rejoicing for myself and others."
The graduation ceremony at Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church in June was festive. The participants who had so sullenly faced that first class were dressed in their finest and had families in tow.
In a sleeveless dress, strappy sandals and hair even blonder than usual, Wright arrived for the dinner with her sister, two nieces and her youngest daughter.
A few days before graduation, she had met with members of Alexandria's Alfred Street Baptist Church, which wanted to sponsor her. Members said they would help her find a better-paying job and offered assistance to her children. "I felt like a ton of bricks had been lifted off my shoulders," Wright said.
The graduates feasted on donated Alaskan crab legs, fried chicken and catfish, and iced tea. Roses decorated the tables.
Together, they read the "assembling statement" one last time, and several students spoke.
"I tried to do everything I could to keep from going to Out of Poverty, but they made me go," said the woman who had laid her head down on the desk on the first day. Now she worked for New Hope and looked forward to moving to a new employer soon.
"It was much better than I expected," said another participant. "I expected a glorified job training program."
While family members snapped photos, the seven graduating women accepted their certificates from Kedoin and Alley. The other women had either dropped out, moved from the housing or had other reasons for failing to finish the program.
Wright looked down at hers and then, with a smile, sat down and placed it carefully in her lap.
Maybe the future wasn't going to be a repeat of the past after all.
For more information, go to www.newhopehousing.org.
Milli Wright, center, with daughter Joy Alvarado, talks with New Hope Housing's executive director, Pam Michell, at Wright's graduation from the Out of Poverty program, conducted by the housing agency.