This month marks one year since my next-door neighbors in Anacostia moved out. They didn’t want to leave. They left because they couldn’t afford it. It was a single mother and her 15-year-old son, and for the purposes of confidentiality, I’ll call them Roz and Cory. I think they’re in Boston now, which wasn’t their preferred choice, but it was their only option — living with distant, and abusive, relatives.
Roz and Cory liked our neighborhood. Rent was affordable under the District of Columbia’s Housing Choice Voucher Program, which is part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section 8 services. They paid about $100 per month for rent — a sum that seemed feasible, albeit barely, given that Roz had lupus and was persistently unemployed. And, thanks to Social Security assistance, there was at least some food on the table.
What ultimately forced Roz and Cory to pack up and leave, apparently, was the D.C. Housing Authority’s de-listing of their landlord for, I assume, poor management and upkeep of their home. You can’t blame DCHA. One look inside their home, and it was clear the landlord didn’t care. The leaky pipes, for instance, were never fixed, a failure that resulted in high, unpaid water bills and ultimately led to DC Water canceling service. To reinstate the service would have cost several hundred dollars, something Roz and Cory could clearly not afford.
So they started asking me for water. Weekly, and sometimes daily, I’d fill up buckets and buckets of water from my tap, for their washing, cooking and sanitation needs. Amazing that in the richest country in the world it came to this.
Cory and I became the closest as he was in charge of water duty. I knew the friends he’d bring over and the girls he dated. I knew that he struggled in class at Anacostia High School. Cory, who was born with sickle cell anemia, desperately wanted to become a doctor so that he could find cures for ill people. Those cures would be free, he said.
That kindness, and his mom’s, is what turned their home into a refuge for runaway teens. It was often his schoolmates or neighborhood kids who’d show up. I’d see new names and new faces, but the stories were the same. This was clearly a safe house. Kids would come and stay for a few days, a few weeks or a few months. The story was usually abuse or neglect — or else there was no story at all. (I wouldn’t ask, and they wouldn’t share).
This was no slumber party. This was a serious effort to provide a safe zone for kids who had been made quiet by something. My mom used to counsel abused kids, so this was familiar territory. You could see it on the faces. Heads down, shoulders slumped, quiet. The timidity would soften but only after they saw that my 6-foot-5-inch frame didn’t represent a threat.
Recall that this was not a family with plenty. Cheap take-out food was a luxury, and dinner was rice or ramen noodles. They hardly had mattresses, blankets or clean water. And yet, their door was always open. They were a confidential go-to for kids in the community, helping where the city couldn’t. (The kids knew of the shelters but would never go there.) But Roz and Cory went beyond that: helping those in need, with the little they had, even as the city wasn’t able to save them from leaky pipes and a lackadaisical landlord.
This seemed to be a neighborhood ethos. Internal, informal systems of support set up to deal with difficult situations: I suppose all tight communities have them. Like when a young kid tried to crack open my front window with a shovel, on a sunny Monday afternoon of a federal holiday, it was the people in the community who reportedly dealt with him later. The young teenager had tried to break into a few houses in my neighborhood. But what was most interesting, they took great pains to emphasize to me that he had been “taken care of” and that he’d never do it again. They wanted me to feel safe. I did. And still do. In fact, I’ve never felt unsafe. Even when someone was shot in front of my house, the community rallied.
That’s all Roz and Cory wanted. What I felt. The feeling of safety. But the District wasn’t able to give it to them. That’s what the runaway kids wanted, too. In fact, long after Roz and Cory moved north, some of the high school kids returned, squatting for a bit in the vacant house and asking me, sometimes in the middle of the night, for shelter, food, clothes and water. They wanted somewhere safe — a simple enough concept but remarkably difficult to find. And yet, I’m sure, somewhere in Southeast a new safe house has emerged. My neighbors would have it no other way.
Michael Shank, a resident of Anacostia, is adjunct faculty at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution and senior fellow at the French American Global Forum.
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