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After 20 years, a call helped a mom find her once-homeless daughter

Mother and daughter singers Vinnie Knight, 74 and Zena, 55 recently reunited after more than 20 years apart due in part to Zena being homeless. (Video: Tara Bahrampour/The Washington Post)
7 min

When Zena Knight was homeless and panhandling in D.C.’s Chinatown, she would sing songs her mother used to sing.

She was sleeping on the street, in buses, in abandoned buildings. Acquaintances saw her as solitary. “Nobody think I had anybody, I was just a person, ‘Well, she doesn’t have a family,’” said Zena, now 55. “Sometimes I’d lay and I’d ask myself, what would I say if I saw my mom again?”

Four hours south in Virginia Beach, Vinnie Knight fretted about her daughter. It had been over 20 years since they had met, and a decade since Vinnie, now 74, had lost track of her only child.

“I’d just feel so bad when people would call me — ‘Oh, how’s Zena?’ I didn’t know where she was,” said Vinnie, a jazz singer.

When it came to mothering, Vinnie hadn’t had much of an example. Her own mother was single, with 13 children who survived infancy, in addition to a half-dozen who did not. Growing up in Harlem, Vinnie shuttled between youth homes and an adult mental institution before returning to her mother “to help her because she kept having all these babies.” By 15 she was ironing shirts by day while going to night school to get her GED.

Zena was born when Vinnie was 18 and trying to study and support herself. Growing up, Zena bounced between Vinnie, some aunts, and foster care. She ran away at 15, and at 17 had a baby on her own, and then another.

As Zena’s life spiraled into addiction and homelessness, Vinnie took her grandchildren to live in Virginia Beach. But after she married a man she said was abusive, her granddaughter went to live with her father and her grandson went into foster care. Meanwhile, Vinnie’s singing career took off, with engagements in Europe, the Caribbean, Africa, and Japan. She lost track of Zena.

Zena’s adult son was killed at a party in 2013, and Vinnie tried to find her. “A friend had contacted me saying she was in jail in Florida. She had a warrant in Kalamazoo.” She wrote to the Florida jail. She reached out to relatives in Michigan. She posted Zena’s picture on Facebook. Eventually, she resigned herself to the idea that Zena may have died. “I’m just done,” she recalled thinking. “Only thing I can do is just pray and leave her in the hands of God.”

Then, two months ago, her phone rang.

“Hi Ma, this is Zena.”

Vinnie’s body went weak. “I said, ‘Zena?’ I just broke down in tears. I says, ‘How are you? What’s going on?’ I told her how much I missed her. … I was just dumbfounded, but happy, but overjoyed, because she was, just, my child is alive.”

That 'homeless person' could be someone's son. Mine, for instance.

Zena had left the streets a couple of years earlier after connecting with Pathways to Housing DC, a nonprofit organization that helps chronically homeless people in the District and Montgomery County move into their own apartments using a model that seeks to first secure permanent housing and then address clients’ medical, mental health, substance abuse and other needs.

Reconnecting with family is frequently part of the process, said Pathways executive director Christy Respress.

“Oftentimes people have family connections but when they experience homelessness those connections have become frayed,” she said, adding that some stop communicating because they don’t want relatives to know they are on the street. “Moving into housing ends homelessness right away and then there’s the ‘What next? Do you have a support system? Do you have family?’… That request and desire to reconnect with family, it’s one of the first things people say.”

Zena wasn’t homeless anymore. But her house wasn’t yet a home. After moving in 2020 into a two-bedroom apartment in a complex in Brookland, Zena told her service coordinator at Pathways, Len Williams, that she wanted to find her mother.

“I got on Facebook on my phone and saw that Vinnie had a Facebook page,” Williams said. She and Zena practiced some mock conversations before Zena called.

“She found this picture and said, ‘Is that your mom?’” Zena recalled. “I look, looked again, and I say, ‘That’s her! It’s her!’ As soon as Len left, I called.”

Two weeks after the phone call, Vinnie’s manager, Reggie Sands, drove her the four hours to Washington. The apartment was full of trash, a couple of people (since evicted) were squatting there, and Zena’s clothes were filthy. “She looked so bad at that time, I could have just fainted. All I could do was hug her and cry.”

Since then, Sands has been driving Vinnie to the District once a week so she can help Zena set up a new life. She has bought her medications and a new bed, and connected Zena to her own daughter, Kachurie, and Kachurie’s children.

“I said to myself and God that I will do everything I can as long as I’m on this earth to help this child,” Vinnie said. “Because she has family. It’s not like she doesn’t have family.”

Williams noted differences in Zena since the reunification. “Her eye contact has improved, she meets her appointments more. … Now she has a place in the world because she’s found her mama. It shows all the bad things that have happened to her in the world haven’t destroyed her.”

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Walking up the two flights of stairs to her apartment on Thursday, Zena moved slowly, wincing at each step. “Arthritis,” she said; she also has sciatica, high blood pressure and depression. But stepping through the door to where Vinnie sat, her face widened into a big smile.

Zena opened kitchen cabinets stocked with food her mother knows she likes, such as pink salmon in a can. “My mom bought me a coffee pot,” she said. “She bought me this microwave.”

In the bedroom, she said, “She bought me this beautiful blanket. … Here’s my closet, my closet is full now.” She pulled out a leopard print hat. “Here’s a hat she bought me. I only had one outfit by the time she got here.”

Sitting together at the kitchen table, their divergent life experience showed. Zena’s face and hands look rough while her mother’s are smooth and manicured. But the resemblances showed, too. “We’re built the same, got the same knockers,” Vinnie said, chuckling.

Recalling her time on the street, Zena began to sing. “'Them that’s got, they’ll get. Them that’s not, they’ll lose. Mama may have, Papa may have’ — and I’m thinking about Mama and Papa.”

Vinnie joined in. “God bless the child,” they sang, their voices blending as the voices of close relatives do.

Next month, Vinnie has a Sunday brunch-time singing engagement at His & Hers, a restaurant near Zena’s apartment, and she plans to have Zena join her onstage. Eating lunch there on Thursday, Zena ordered fried chicken and french fries. Vinnie got salmon bites, catfish, and fried cauliflower, and placed pieces on her daughter’s plate, urging her to try them.

“Looks like you been crying,” she said, inspecting her daughter’s cheek. “You may need to go to the eye doctor, because you may have dry eye.”

From the outdoor table, Zena noticed a man at a bus stop and said she was going to go ask him for a cigarette; her mother stopped her.

“She still has some of the symptoms of living on the street,” Vinnie said. “I say, ‘Don’t do that, you don’t need to do that, I’ll take you over to the Family Dollar and buy you a pack.’ I’m trying to get her to do things properly in society.”

The catfish morsels, the eye doctor, the cigarettes — each moment reminded Zena what it means to have a mother.

“That I’m somebody that has one,” she marveled, comparing life now to before their reunion. “I didn’t feel like I feel now, uplifted, like a whole thing just fell off my back. I didn’t feel like living. Now, I feel like living.”