Flavia Ford sat behind the wheel of her sister’s car, unable to move. It took only half an hour to get from her new apartment in Northeast Washington to this warehouse parking lot in Silver Spring, but in truth it had been a very long journey.
Two years ago, Ford and her now-7-year-old daughter, Sheikira, began roaming the streets, all of their possessions in just three bags. They slept in the back of a truck, on the hard floor of an ATM enclosure and, on lucky nights, in hotel beds.
Finally, three months ago, Ford, 30, found an affordable place to live. Now, through a stranger’s donation, she would be able to take the next step toward building a new life.
The anticipation was paralyzing. Her cellphone rang, but she didn’t pick up.
“I’ve got to get myself together,” Ford said, wiping away tears.
She reminded herself that homelessness had not crippled her; here was a chance to let go of the past.
On this November day, she and Sheikira would finally get their own beds.
Of all the clothes and furniture given to the poor at the Silver Spring nonprofit A Wider Circle, no item is more desired — or valuable — than a bed with a good, clean mattress.
What more intimate piece of furniture does a person have? It’s the cushion from exhaustion, refuge from a bad day, the place where parents read to their children.
But the supply has rarely met the demand, especially as the number of clients at the charity has grown from 2,180 in 2007 to more than 17,000 today. They come for job training, business suits, toys and furniture — especially beds.
About five years ago, Executive Director Mark Bergel kept overhearing staff members explain to clients that a pullout sofa was just as good as a bed, he said. That didn’t ring true to Bergel, who decided to donate his own bed and vowed to sleep without one until every person in the country had a bed. Even as what might be called an extreme idealist, he knew that wouldn’t happen quickly.
“I rarely get a good night’s rest,’’ Bergel said. “I have a bad back. But for us, the bed is a symbol of comfort and empowerment.”
When Ford called in August, the staff promised to help her get a bed as soon as possible.
The waiting list was four months long.
One week before Ford’s appointment, Tracie Felker’s doorbell rang.
“I’m sorry, the power’s been out all afternoon,’’ Felker told the two men at the door. The outreach workers from A Wider Circle had come to her home in Kensington to pick up donations.“But I have a headlamp if it will help.”
The workers crept gingerly down the dark stairs to the basement. Behind the broken furniture and boxes were two twin-size Sears mattresses in a matching peachy floral print.
Felker had received them after the death of her grandmother in Dalton, Ga., about six years ago. They had just been lying in the basement unused.
Back at A Wider Circle, there were two headboards and two footboards waiting, but they were useless without mattresses that meet the charity’s standards (no stains, practically new).
As the workers lifted the mattresses in the dark basement, Felker began thinking of other things to donate. Two end tables. Box springs. Chests of drawers. Posters.
After the men finished loading their 10-wheel truck, the lights in the house powered back on.
“Look at that!” Felker said. “Ha, it’s a miracle!”
As Ford made her way inside the warehouse, she hugged everyone. Hugs to the staffer who helped her pick out a white chest of drawers. Hugs to the woman who gave her curtains and Tupperware containers.
When she saw the two mattresses waiting for her, she clapped her hands. “My own bed, wow,’’ Ford said, selecting white headboards and footboards and bed frames from the piles.
Sheikira was elsewhere in the warehouse, picking out books and stuffed animals.
At her daughter’s age, Ford was into sports and went on to be a shooting guard on Dunbar Senior High’s varsity basketball team. Ford said she left the area to play college ball in Los Angeles but moved back for love.
When she and her fiance broke up, she and Sheikira moved in with her sister at a public housing complex in Northeast Washington. After the sister kicked Ford and Sheikira out following an argument, the two secretly slept in the back of the sister’s truck.
Ford tried to get on the list for affordable public housing in the District, only to learn that the wait was years long. She said she tried getting into the city’s emergency family shelter, but a city official told her that it was full .
She said she stopped asking the city for help after officials kept inquiring about her child. “I didn’t want them to take my baby away,” she said.
Despite having jobs at stores and restaurants, she couldn’t afford an apartment. Instead, she rented couch space. Sheikira spent nights with her father infrequently. Ford said she and her daughter also stayed at Marriott hotels, thanks to a friend who gets a discount. And when Sheikira got a tummy ache, they’d sleep in the emergency room.
They traversed the region with a bag full of clothes, another one for shoes and a backpack overflowing with hotel receipts, in case Ford needed proof of her spending to continue her public benefits.
“And through it all, no one would ever know. I kept my baby clean,’’ Ford said. “I’d pick her up and drop her off from school every day, and then we’d figure out where we were sleeping.”
She said she felt like she had gotten a reprieve last winter when she was hired to work at the National Capital branch of the YMCA, earning about $300 a month more than she had been making at an IHOP restaurant. She and Sheikira tried to save money for a deposit on an apartment by sleeping in the ATM vestibule of a nearby bank, huddled under a Tinkerbell blanket.
Later, Ford sent Sheikira to stay with a relative in the area, and she’d sneak back into the YMCA to sleep on the gym’s massage table after the custodial staff went home.
In July, a landlord offered Ford a one-bedroom apartment in the Trinidad neighborhood for $950 a month.
If she stretched her $520 biweekly paycheck, she could manage it. But she couldn’t afford the security deposit. Despondent, she spoke with a co-worker.
Donnie Shaw, community relations director at the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington, encouraged her to tell her bosses about the situation.
“I told her to tell them where she’d been sleeping,’’ Shaw said. “Here was a woman who is working hard. You see her with her child all the time, and she still can’t find a place to live. We had to help.”
Ford received a pay advance to cover the deposit, and she bought two air mattresses. Shaw referred her to A Wider Circle, and he agreed to help ferry the beds to her new home.
As workers loaded Ford’s furniture into Shaw’s pickup truck, he joked that Ford was like a character in a modern-day “Beverly Hillbillies.” He began singing a parody of the show’s theme song:
“First thing you know that she’s a millionaire,
“Kinfolk said, ‘Flavia, move away from here,
“Trinidad is the place you ought to be’
“So we loaded up the truck . . .’’
Ford interrupted him with her laughter.
Ford’s new neighbors watched from outside their two-story attached homes as Shaw and another friend moved the furniture into the apartment.
“Now you make sure to keep this place up,’’ Shaw told Ford. “Don’t wait for anyone to do it. . . . That’s how you make the neighborhood better.”
Ford’s apartment was barren except for a television, the air mattresses and a closet stuffed with their belongings. As Ford began to unpack, Sheikira ran to the living room to play with her stuffed animals.
Ford went into the den, converted into a bedroom for her daughter. She set down a white headboard and a footboard, and then connected them to one of the bed frames. Next, she hoisted the box springs on top of it, then a peach-colored mattress on top of that. At last, she spread a turquoise sheet over the bed.
She stood back and paused.
“Sheikira, come over here!” she yelled down the hall. “Look what Mommy made.”
But Sheikira didn’t move.
“Shhhh,’’ she replied. “My baby’s sleeping.”
In the living room, her daughter had put the stuffed animals to sleep somewhere familiar: the hardwood floor.