Paula counted out her money on the hotel room bed. Then she counted it again.
“I counted the money four times, as if somehow it was going to magically change,” she said.
It didn’t, and so there wasn’t enough to pay for another night in a hotel on Route 1 in Prince George’s County. When Paula had run out of money before, she would spend the night in her car. But her car had been repossessed. A D.C. native, she dialed the city’s 311 information number.
That was in July 2016, the culmination of a period of homelessness set in motion, Paula said, by the deaths of her husband and her father and the loss of the family home. With her two sons — one a teenager, the other in his early 20s — safely staying with friends, it was time for Paula to do something she’d never expected: move into a shelter.
“I believe that we all have that stereotype when we see someone who’s homeless,” said Paula, 56. “They all must be drinking or on drugs. But there is also the added component. There is the veteran who hasn’t found work. There is the grandparent who is taking care of the children because their son or daughter has decided not to come back to take care of their own children. There is the widow who found herself on the streets with her kids. There are so many different situations and these are the women that I met.”
She met them because she was one of them.
Paula, who asked that I not use her last name, grew up in Northeast Washington, and when she had to sleep in her car, that’s often where she returned. She’d try to find a dark street and would pull a dark blanket over herself — and over her younger son when he was still living with her. The idea was to make herself invisible.
One night, Paula parked in the parking lot of the Catholic elementary school she’d attended as a child, her teenage son stretched out next to her.
A priest knocked on her window. Paula knew the church didn’t want its parking lot full of people sleeping in their vehicles, and when a police car rolled up, she thought she’d have to leave — or that she’d be reported to Child Protective Services.
“The priest saw the amount of fear on my face,” she said. “He said the police officer’s name and said, ‘This is Miss Paula. She can stay here.’
“After that, any time I knew I didn’t have money for a hotel, I would go there.”
When the money ran out and she’d lost the possessions that had been in storage — when she’d lost the car and was living in a shelter — Paula discovered N Street Village, a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand. It helps women who are experiencing homelessness repair their lives.
Paula started going to programs at the charity’s N Street NW headquarters. They included yoga and tai chi and discussions on health and nutrition. She was made aware of a class offered by AARP and the District’s Department of Employment Services on looking for a job when you’re over 50.
Paula now has her own room in a nearby transitional housing program and since May has had a part-time administrative job at a Dupont Circle church.
Now that things are better, Paula’s had some time to reflect.
“Being homeless is like being in quicksand,” she said.
You think you can pull yourself out of it, but it’s hard. How can you make yourself presentable for a job interview if your clothes are rumpled from sleeping in your car and you’ve washed in a McDonald’s bathroom?
Paula grew up in abundance, she said, and worked in corporate America for 20 years before her hardships. She’s convinced most of us encounter people who we don’t realize are homeless. It can be the co-worker who doesn’t go to happy hour after work because he can’t afford to or because she doesn’t want to lose her place that night in the shelter. It can be the person on the pew next to us at church wearing hand-me-down clothes.
“It’s exhausting. It’s sad. It’s frightening,” she said. “But people get up, one person at a time.”
For Paula, it was N Street Village that helped.
Your gift to N Street Village will help the thousands of women like Paula who turn to the organization every year. To give, visit posthelpinghand.com. To donate by mail, make a check payable to N Street Village and send it to N Street Village, Attn: Helping Hand, 1333 N St. NW, Washington, DC 20005.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.