For want of a fuel pump, the car was lost. For want of a car, the job was lost. For want of a job, the home was lost. For want of a home, the self-respect was lost.
The question Joseph Marshall asked himself was: Could he get his self-respect back and reverse the chain of events that had forced his young family into the shelter at D.C. General?
Joseph, 27, and his fiancee, Tiana, had been keeping it together — barely. His life had not been easy. He was raised in Southeast Washington by a single mother. When he was a teenager, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
“It basically kind of ate her up,” Joseph told me recently. “She just got smaller and smaller.”
She died when Joseph was 16. His siblings — two brothers and three sisters — scattered. Joseph wound up on his own, doing, as he calls it, “the street thing.” His life improved when he met Tiana and they started a family.
“Once we had the baby, it made me stop doing the things I was doing,” he said.
They moved to an apartment in Woodbridge, Va. They had another son. Joseph worked at a Home Depot and then managed a McDonald’s. Tiana worked at a furniture store. Public transportation is spotty in the suburbs. A 2003 Hyundai made getting to work possible. Then it died. They didn’t have the money to replace it.
“It went downhill from there,” Joseph said. The couple lost their jobs. They fell behind on their rent and went home one day to find their possessions piled outside. After their eviction, they moved in with different relatives — separately.
Joseph remembers a Christmas three years ago at a relative’s house. He had no money to buy presents for his children, who watched as others opened their gifts.
“It was so sad,” Joseph said. “I was looking at my sons. They were only 1 or 2, but still. That was the first time I really cried since my mother died.”
At the end of 2012, they moved into D.C. General. They were together as a family, but in a place that seemed to remind them of their failure, to sap them of their ambition. For more than a year Joseph treaded water, too depressed and angry to find a job.
“A lot of people don’t come back from it,” he said. “If you ain’t strong, you ain’t gonna make it.”
Joseph was able to rouse himself from his lethargy. He pressed his caseworker for help and was connected with Community of Hope, a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand.
“She said it’s a program that helps you stabilize yourself to get to where you want to get,” Joseph said.
He and Tiana were offered a place at the Girard Street Apartments, a Community of Hope apartment-style shelter in Columbia Heights. There is space for 20 families with children and support services to help them break the cycle of homelessness.
Community of Hope employment specialist Lashaye Tucker worked with Joseph. He’d done construction work, so she sent him for interviews with construction companies. One glitch: Joseph had lost many of his personal papers during the eviction and had to get new ID and Social Security cards.
He was very eager to work. When Joseph applied at Fort Myer Construction, the woman in recruitment handed him an application and told him to bring it back the next day.
“I filled it in at the gas station across the street and took it right back to her,” he said.
Joseph landed the job. Since April, he’s been working for Fort Myer Construction on a paving crew. He gets up at 4:30 in the morning and takes two buses to get to the yard. His job takes him all over the city. You may have seen him holding a flag, directing traffic.
“I’m trying to learn as much as I can,” he said. Joseph’s goal is to earn a commercial driver’s license, enabling him to operate the big machinery — and command a higher paycheck. Meanwhile, Tiana is enrolled in a home health aide class.
The Girard Street program is typically eight months. Joseph and Tiana are looking for affordable housing near the Metro.
“There’s a lot of youth now who are homeless,” Joseph said. “A lot resort to violence. You can do something other than that.”
With a little help, Joseph did.
The beauty — and science — of Community of Hope’s program is that it supplies the structure that many homeless District families lack. It provides a safe space where they can catch their breath, learn skills, save money.
You can help support this work. To donate online, go to posthelpinghand.com. To give by mail, send a check, payable to “Community of Hope,” to: Community of Hope, Attn: Helping Hand, 4 Atlantic St. SW, Washington, D.C. 20032.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.