Eboni is hopping and prancing in her tiny pink boots.
She moves in that ridiculous toddler way you’d imagine a teddy bear would walk, just outside the cramped closet of the room she calls home, giggling. Then she stiffens. An officer stomps through the hallway — black boots, dark pants, handcuffs, a gun — and Eboni runs inside the room she shares with her mother.
The nightly patrol is out. This is life inside D.C. General, the former hospital in the nation’s capital that serves as the city’s largest shelter for homeless families.
The scene is part of a video diary that Eboni’s mom, Sasha Williams, kept while she stayed there for three months with her daughter.
Williams had the camera running late at night, after Eboni’s little lips were pursed in that sleeping-child way. Mom’s eyes were wide open, looking up at the ceiling for answers about a life with so many wrong turns.
“If I was protected and not left alone, things would’ve been better,” Williams tells no one. And, it turns out, everyone.
The video diary, a rare glimpse into what daily life is like for 800 or so families in a place that symbolizes the city’s gaping and shameful wealth and opportunity gap, is going public. In a very big way.
With the help of people who run the Street Sense newspaper, Williams has turned her poignant and searing video diary into a film, “Raise to Rise,” that will premiere at Landmark’s E Street Cinema this week.
Her journey into homelessness began with the slow burn of an unstable home and the shock of a traumatic event.
She was a student at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School who loved her photography class. But in November 2003, she was raped at gunpoint by a stranger, she said.
Emotionally, she never recovered. And while her classmates went on to college, Williams left home and began bouncing from one tenuous address to another.
“I wanted to get away from the community where it happened, from everything,” she says. “I’ve been a runner for a long time. I’ve been in shelters, on floors, running away.”
Williams, 30, managed a job-training program at Covenant House and patched together three years of solid work at a PNC Bank.
But she had patches of homelessness. And then she had Eboni, now 2, whose father is mostly out of the picture.
The two of them exhausted every open door they could find before landing in the shelter in November.
“I never thought I’d be back here this way,” Williams says in her video diary. She was born at D.C. General in 1985, when it was still a hospital.
While she was at the shelter, Williams began working for Street Sense. That’s the paper you see being sold by homeless men and women on street corners around town.
The newspaper is expanding with the Street Sense Media Center, with online articles and content marketing for companies, governments and nonprofit groups that want material about homelessness (and eventually, about things other than homelessness). Now, ambitiously, Street Sense is venturing into film, having premiered “Cinema on the Street” at E Street Cinema in April. This will be their second.
As the organization helps shepherd these projects, something becomes clear to Brian Carome, the executive director of Street Sense.
“People like Sasha remind us that education, housing, income and opportunity are not distributed equally in this country. But talent is,” Carome said.
Williams had the idea of creating a video diary, something that would show what life was really like inside. Bryan Bello, the director of the film program, got her an iPhone.
And so she began, juggling the phone while she was filming during the daily screening to get inside. She kept it running while Eboni played and slept. She filmed the broken signs in honor of Relisha Rudd, the 8-year-old girl who disappeared more than a year ago with a janitor who worked at the shelter, who killed his wife and then himself. She used it to document the guards, the chaos, the women with weapons hidden in their bras. And the honest, sad late-night regrets of life choices that were made.
There are shots of Eboni outside the beautiful new playground the city finally built so the 600 or so children who live at D.C. General would have a place to play. But the playground has a fence and a locked gate around it, and kids are allowed inside only when a guard is available to watch.
And we see Eboni standing outside this lime green and sunshine yellow metaphor for life in the nation’s capital. So much opportunity, so close and so unavailable to them. Not for you, little one.
After weeks of editing and consulting and talking, the film is ready. On Wednesday night, Williams will be there for the gala premiere at the theater.
She has her own apartment now and wants her film to have an impact.
“I want to empower people,” she says. “I want other single moms to stay encouraged. Believe in yourself.”
And for the folks who might be going to one of the fancy restaurants nearby, who might drop the equivalent of a month’s worth of food stamps on a single meal: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.
“You don’t know why I’m here.”
And she wants Eboni to see how hard they struggled. And how life should not be for a child, any child.
“Cinema from the Street, Part 2” featuring “Raise to Rise” and Cynthia Mewborn’s “Whom Shall I Be Grateful To?,” Wednesday from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Landmark’s E Street Cinema, 555 11th St. NW. Tickets are $12.
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