The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Housed for the holidays: A fresh start — and new struggles — after D.C.’s streets

After years of homelessness, these three people will spend Christmas in their own apartments. Here’s what that means to them.

Emmanuel Johnson, 43, outside his new apartment in Southeast Washington. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)
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Emmanuel Johnson doesn’t believe in Christmas.

After a largely loveless childhood in which he was “moved around like a chess piece,” and more than two decades in and out of prison and on the streets, his holiday spirit vanished a long time ago.

Even so, Johnson says he’s received a miraculous gift: his first apartment at the age of 43 — a bright, one-bedroom shotgun flat in Southeast Washington.

After his last release from prison, Johnson spent three years on the streets, mostly at Second and L streets in Northeast. His outdoor struggles ended this fall, along with those of 32 other people in the NoMa underpass tent encampments, after the District announced that, as part of clearing the enclave and two other large encampments, it would partner with nonprofit agencies to find housing for those residents.

D.C. clears longtime encampment in NoMa in kickoff to new program to house the homeless

The pilot program, which is focused on placing the homeless in apartments or hotel rooms for a year while connecting them with social service programs, has generated controversy. Advocates, unhoused residents and some D.C. Council members say that the clearing of the encampments has been rushed and inhumane, and that the barriers being erected to prevent people from returning to the sites amount to the criminalization of homelessness.

An emergency measure to temporarily stop the sweep and challenge the city’s decision to remove the homeless from public spaces was rejected by the D.C. Council on Tuesday. Those voting against the measure said the tent encampments pose health and safety issues, and that providing housing was the right thing to do.

The night before, advocates announced at an annual memorial vigil that 69 homeless people died in 2021 — 22 after receiving housing vouchers, like Johnson, that would have allowed them to move into homes. People who experience homelessness have an average life span of 50.

Even as he remembers — fondly, painfully — some of his friends on the street, Johnson said he’s grateful to have survived long enough to find a home. During an interview, he lounges on his brand-new green sofa before a large open window glowing with sunshine, the whoosh of traffic from the nearby highway buffered by a thicket of trees along the dead-end street. On the small deck in the back, Popeye, Johnson’s sandy Staffordshire terrier service dog, playfully shakes a fallen tree branch.

“I have my own place. No one can tell me what to do,” said Johnson, a tall, slim, tattooed man with an emotive face. He sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night and takes in his new surroundings — the lack of loud street noise, the warmth, the solitude — and, he said, “I have to pinch myself.”

Johnson’s indoor struggles, however, have just begun. He needs to finish a math course to earn his GED, find a job despite a felony record, stick to the medicines for his mental health conditions and weather the stresses already coming his way. Yet having a home has boosted his ambitions “to be a better person,” he said, starting with the holiday.

The challenge is the same for everyone moving off the streets, said Christy Respress, executive director of Pathways to Housing DC, the nonprofit group working with the city to help find housing for the people in the NoMa encampment and connect them with services such as mental health care, education and job training.

“Housing ends homelessness,” Respress said. “Then lots of other hard work comes … the hard work of connecting with family and finding a career for some people, reconnecting with faith communities, addressing long-standing mental health needs or physical health or substance issues. But housing gives you a safe place to start to do those things.”

As of Thursday, 89 of the 111 people who had been living in the three targeted encampments — NoMa; New Jersey and O streets NW; and E and 20th/21st streets NW — have either been housed or are working with nonprofit organizations to find places to live. The rest have either so far refused help or are no longer living there, according to city government data.

The 33 newly housed people from the NoMa encampment include Christina Giles, 42, and William Dove, 48, who together with Johnson demonstrate the humanity behind homelessness and the significance of a stable home.

‘That strong’

Giles camped for 2½ years under the Metro overpass at L Street NE in a green tent, marked at one point with a makeshift “window box” composed of a small plastic bonsai atop a concrete block.

The surrounding blocks had been home during earlier times in her life, first as a child growing up in a sprawling house at K and First streets NE, the daughter of a stay-at-home mother and a father who at first managed to hide his alcoholism and opioid addiction to earn a living as a master plumber.

During the 1980s crack epidemic, Giles’s mother became hooked on the drug and would disappear for long stretches. Giles herself became pregnant at 12 and went on to birth three more children by the time she was 25. She spent time in foster care and, perpetually angry, ran away before turning 18.

At 22, she was convicted on federal charges of possession of more than five grams of cocaine, she said. But she had already begun the work to turn her life around, and the judge, impressed, granted time served and gave her five years’ parole.

She labored long hours at customer service and waitressing jobs, often two gigs at once, to pay market rent and keep her children housed and fed. She volunteered at her son’s school, becoming a parent leader in the Head Start program and then a delegate in the national organization. She earned a high school diploma and took classes for two years at Strayer University, before lack of steady work and rising D.C. rents began to shake her life.

On the cusp of 40, Giles left what she described as an abusive marriage to a truck driver in New Jersey and found herself back in D.C. with nowhere to live. Her mother had died, her father was old and faltering, and her grown children were also overwhelmed. Sometimes she would rent a room, “but if you pay under $1,000, people treat you like you’re living there for free.” The landlords sexually harassed her, verbally abused her and tried to extort her to make up the difference, she said.

The threat to homeless women was ever-present. Once in the encampment, she witnessed a man beating a transgender woman with a golf club. She ran over and wrested it away, she said. “I didn’t know I was that strong.”

She connected her unhoused neighbors with nonprofit workers who would help them get housing vouchers. And yet she didn’t seem to meet the criteria herself. She had no mental health, substance abuse or gender issues, she says, and her efforts on her own behalf failed. Then the pilot program began, and on Oct. 5 she moved into a tiny apartment she chose herself on North Capitol Street NE — in the same NoMa neighborhood where she lived as a child and survived on the streets as an adult. Two of her children and six of her grandchildren live nearby.

Giles slept a lot for the first 30 days, she said, and when she wasn’t dozing, she “sunbathed like a cat” in a gray club chair beside a wall-to-wall window in her new kitchen.

On this day in mid-December, the window offers a view of a cityscape illuminated in the late-morning sun. Small, spiky plants, candles and the crystals and rocks she uses for healing therapies line the ledge. On a low, brown table, a row of brightly painted acrylic nails glistens; a necklace of tiny white shells and bright beads — her own creation — rests on her throat. Everything on display will be part of her new creative venture. This is how she plans to lift herself and others up.

But even in her new apartment far above the streets, anxiety seeps in. Despite assurances from Pathways to Housing DC that it plans to place everyone in a permanent home before the year is up, Giles fears what next fall will bring.

‘I believe in me’

William Dove stands in the neat white kitchen of his Columbia Heights studio as the light through the window behind him begins to wane with the setting sun.

He moved in just before Thanksgiving, and with Christmas now a week away, he’s been too busy with HVAC-repair job training to meet the people sent from Pathways to bring his bed and sofa. The room is empty, save for an air mattress covered with a brown blanket on the floor, although he sleeps undisturbed in his own home.

He marvels at the well-off residents outside who walk quickly, warily, down 14th Street NW and surrounding blocks in Columbia Heights, looking over their shoulders on their way to Target or their fancy condo buildings. What in the world are they so afraid of?

His lack of fear is an unexpected benefit of living a hard and dangerous life, he thinks. He once sold drugs in the city’s public housing complexes, and spent years hopped up on PCP, cocaine, you name it. He fought in a gang, partied unhoused for two decades far from his native Largo, Md., on the streets of Alabama, Georgia and Florida, while working construction jobs or not working at all. He’s been stabbed and run over by a car, whose driver then backed up and rested a wheel between his shoulder blades, he says. He woke up in the hospital; a scar now wriggles its way across his bald scalp. As he describes it all, he opens up, shuts down, opens up. He feels much older than 48.

He married and divorced a very devout Christian woman, accepted a higher power in 12-step groups, but eventually he decided those programs and Christianity lack an edict of self-empowerment. “Where is the part where you say, ‘I believe in me,’” he wondered.

His beliefs are now purely metaphysical. Energy returns to its source; his mother, who died of cancer in 2020, guides him from the beyond.

After his girlfriend passed out from drugs in Charlotte and he barely managed to revive her, he felt his mother’s spiritual presence with a jolt, he said. She had long warned him that he would die if he stayed with that woman. “I quick crammed my clothes into a gym bag, hopped in the van and shot straight up” to D.C., he said.

Dove eventually landed on the streets in the NoMa encampment. After Pathways found him housing, he began relying on his own power, including the construction and repair skills his father and a mentor had taught him as a boy and young man.

The day before, he had graduated from the job-training program at Project Empowerment and was chosen to give the speech.

In his apartment, he sifts through the contents of his closet to show a visitor the dark blazer and tie that he wore on the stage, where he thundered affirmations for his fellow graduates. “I got this applause and I was like, ‘Wow,’” he said. He tilts his chin up with laughter in the dim light.

‘I’m sad’

In the week before Christmas, Johnson’s newfound stability begins to quiver. His girlfriend’s father died, and shortly after, an old friend passed away, too. His voice trembles on the phone with a reporter.

“Miss Sydney,” he said, “I’m sad.” He suffers from, among other things, bipolar disorder and tried twice this year to kill himself when he was living on the streets, he said.

He is easily thrown off balance and is trying to better manage his emotions, he said. “You know what a honey badger is? It’s a very defensive animal. It goes up against lions and everything. It don’t back down for nothing. That’s how I feel sometimes.”

To fill his days, he helps a neighbor deliver goods for charities, works on preparing for his GED exam through Khan Academy and goes with his girlfriend, Natasha, and his pup, Popeye, by bus to pick up her three children from school. His early and brief experience of love from a stepmother and the genuine affection he feels from the children keep him going.

The apartment, too. As the sun streamed through the window a few days earlier, he felt strong.

He would try his best with the little he had in his new home to conjure Christmas magic for the people he loves most. Two of Natasha’s three children call him “Dad.” He wants to be someone who deserves that.

He planned to cook not one, but three cakes in his own kitchen — “a chocolate cake, a strawberry cake and a marble cake” — to take to Natasha’s mother’s house for Christmas dessert.

On Christmas Eve, the kids would spend the night at his place. He hoped he could afford something that would brighten their faces in the morning.

He doesn’t believe in Christmas, but he was home for the holidays and glad of it.

Read more:

A homeless man longs to see his daughter on Christmas. Can he find $27 for a bus ticket?

A lost engagement ring. A frantic search. And a Christmas miracle.

A child calling Santa reached NORAD instead. Christmas Eve was never the same.

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