The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A pregnant homeless woman and her daughter weren’t going to be another statistic, decided strangers who stepped up to help them

Taylar Nuevelle, left, has became an advocate for Ikea Warren, who is due to deliver her daughter any day now. (Courtesy of Taylar Nuevelle)

In the next several days, whether through nature’s will or medical intervention, Ikea Warren will give birth to a baby girl named Nyleah.

“It means sunshine,” she tells me on a recent evening.

She can’t remember where she learned that, and it doesn’t really matter. The 25-year-old’s life has been filled with plenty of darkness, and she has come to see her daughter as what comes after that.

“She is my happy right now,” she says. “She brings a lot of light into my life.”

Another baby born in the nation’s capital is not particularly newsworthy. But Nyleah’s birth, if all goes as planned and she and her mom leave the hospital healthy, will come in defiance of multiple sets of statistics stacked against them.

Nyleah is being born to a black woman in a city that has been trying to address stark racial disparities when it comes to infant and maternal mortality rates. Nationally and locally, black women and their children bear a disproportionate burden of the losses.

Why Washington is one of the worst places to be black and pregnant

Nyleah is also being carried by a woman who has spent the past several months homeless during a pandemic that has taken a toll on that population. As of Thursday, according to city data, 15 homeless people in the District have died of the coronavirus and 272 individuals in shelters have tested positive for it.

The shadow cast by those numbers has not gone unnoticed by Ikea (whose name is pronounced Ah-kie-ya but has grown used to people getting it wrong). At one shelter, she says, she was the first in line to get a mask. At another, she says, she barely left her room after she received a letter saying two people in the building tested positive for the virus.

“I was definitely worried about her,” she says of her daughter. “I wore my mask, and I washed my hands every second of the day.”

Ikea is in a good place now. She feels safe. She feels eager to meet that baby and bring her home. But that wasn’t the case just a few months ago, and what changed her situation is a story that goes beyond statistics. It’s about people. People she met unexpectedly, and people she may never meet, who decided to help her and Nyleah.

The generosity of strangers has shown itself in multiple ways across the nation and in the Washington region during this pandemic. This time, it is helping a baby before she has even taken her first breath.

“I went from stressing about how I was going to get everything to basically being stress-free because I’ve gotten so much help in so little time,” Ikea says. She says she feels grateful to all those people. “Now me and my daughter have a fighting chance to bond and for her to have a healthy life.”

Rewind to about four months ago, and Ikea was getting dropped off at a recreation-center-turned-homeless-shelter with only the clothes she was wearing, a few dollars in her pocket and a phone that would soon break. She says she had been staying temporarily with a friend when she called the city’s shelter hotline and was taken to the King Greenleaf Recreation Center, where she was given a cot in a gym to sleep on.

“When I first got there, I thought, ‘At least it’s clean, it’s decent,’ ” she recalls.

Then the coronavirus started spreading through the city, and the women were told they couldn’t stay inside during the day, she says. Without access to the restrooms, she says, they were forced to relieve themselves outside the building, holding up clothes to shield themselves from passersby. Ikea developed a urinary tract infection at one point, and she believes it’s because she tried to limit how often she faced that indignity.

Taylar Nuevelle recalls seeing Ikea sitting on a hard bench outside the building when they first met in early April. Nuevelle, who founded the nonprofit Who Speaks for Me?, which describes its mission as “dismantling the trauma-to-prison pipeline for females,” had shown up to drop off a phone for a woman who had reached out to her for help.

When she got there, she says, other women started asking her for items they needed. She recalls Ikea requesting only one thing.

“She came up to me and said, ‘Can you get me some baby girl clothes?’ ” Nuevelle recalls.

Nuevelle turned to the D.C. Mutual Aid Network’s Facebook page on April 6 to request items for the women. She started her post with the word, “Urgent.” Two days later, she posted an update, saying she had dropped off tampons, pads, soap and clothes. This time, she included a longer list of needs.

“Friends it’s dismal,” she wrote. “They need everything.”

Nuevelle describes the generosity people have shown as overwhelming. Their donations have filled a storage pod with toiletries and other items. They have also provided Ikea with those baby clothes — along with a phone paid through the end of the year, a new stroller, a bassinet, bottles, diapers and other items she’ll need to take care of her daughter.

“I lose hope in humanity all the time, and I have to tell you this: People showed up,” Nuevelle says. “This is what community looks like.”

Since those early April posts, she has held a virtual baby shower for Ikea and has kept people updated on her situation through that Facebook page.

She has also sent emails to city officials demanding they move Ikea out of Greenleaf, and later out of the Days Inn on New York Avenue, which the city uses to house homeless families.

The District decided to do right by homeless children — but only after pleas, worries and questions

In an email Nuevelle sent Wednesday to city officials, she described guards at the Days Inn patting down homeless residents without wearing gloves or masks and Ikea’s reluctance to leave her room, even to get food, after learning that a resident and a staff member there had tested positive for the coronavirus.

“DC has infant and mother mortality rates amongst Black women that are as high as those in developing countries,” she wrote in that email. “I will do everything in my power to make sure Ikea Warren and her baby Nyleah do not become a part of these mortality statistics because of your negligence.”

When asked about the conditions at Greenleaf and the Days Inn, an official with the Department of Human Services said the agency requires that guards wear face masks and gloves at the family shelters and hotels where families are housed. The official also said residents at Greenleaf are never discouraged from using the restroom but are asked to leave the gym floor when deep cleaning is occurring, and it occurs daily. On May 20, the city plans to stop using Greenleaf as an emergency shelter.

On Wednesday, Ikea moved into the Brooks, a new family homeless shelter in Ward 3 that was built as part of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s plan to replace the dismal D.C. General shelter with smaller shelters across the city.

Ikea describes it as “so clean,” with a staff that is “professional” and an atmosphere that makes her “feel grounded.”

She wasn’t always homeless, but she also hasn’t had many places that have felt like home, she explains when we talk on her second night at the Brooks. She describes attending college for three years but also living a life filled with trauma, abuse and loss.

She was born to a mother who abused drugs while carrying her and her twin brother, she says, and they entered the foster care system when they were about 2 years old. She says she has two other children who are with a relative, and she hopes to one day have them back in her life. Before coming to Washington a year and a half ago, she was living in Pennsylvania. There, she says, she was working two jobs and in an abusive relationship she was reluctant to leave.

“I was scared,” she says. “I didn’t really want to start over again. But it got to the point where I was going to work with black eyes, and I didn’t want to lose myself in the process. I knew it was going to be hard. I knew there were going to be challenges. But it was worth it, because if I had stayed, I probably wouldn’t be here today.”

She wouldn’t be putting a crib together on a Thursday night.

She wouldn’t have her hospital bag packed, and in it, a pink-and-white onesie with a tutu and matching headband.

She wouldn’t have a car seat strapped in Nuevelle’s Honda Fit, ready to bring Nyleah home from the hospital.

Read more from Theresa Vargas:

‘Please, please, wake up’: She was 7 months pregnant when she lost her baby. She then left D.C., believing it took too much from her.

One family’s experience with the ‘unfair’ math of our country: Four U.S. citizens plus one who is not equals zero stimulus funds

Don’t underestimate the strength of moms. They’re often their best during the worst of times.