To make their relationship work, Alyssa Robinson and Marvin Wilson spent time sleeping in parks and on streets around the District.
They worked hard to raise their toddlers, and some days were tougher than others. Eventually, they moved into a family shelter inside a motel. But the stress and instability of their living situation began to spill over into their relationship, and the ties between them started to fray.
Theirs is a story of love amid the struggles of housing instability in a city with the highest per capita rate of homelessness in the country, according to a 2016 survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
And their story, along with that of three others, is told in a documentary titled "Homelessly in Love."
The documentary is directed by Ariane Mohseni and Lalita Clozel, first-time filmmakers who wanted to tell the stories of men and women finding love while dealing with the challenges of homelessness.
Mohseni, a French native, had hit on the idea of making the documentary while volunteering at a homeless shelter in Paris. After discussing it with Clozel, her high school friend and a journalist in the District, they decided to make the film.
And so, the first time Mohseni came to Washington in the spring of 2015, it was to meet the homeless and to find out what it means to fall in and out of love on the streets of the city.
The two had planned to make a short film, no longer than 30 minutes, and to release it on YouTube in August 2015.
But as they began to film, the stories of their subjects drew them in. Their narratives were "too important and too universal . . . that we had to do something longer about their lives," said Mohseni, 26.
"It made us realize that there was a deeper human story" beyond the initial question of what it's like to be homeless and in love, said Clozel, 26.
Over the past two and a half years, Mohseni and Clozel have followed the lives of their subjects, all of whom are homeless or formerly homeless, chronicling the ebb and flow of their lives. Street Sense, the organization behind the biweekly newspaper about homelessness and poverty in the District, provided initial funding for video equipment and connected the two with people in the homelessness-focused community.
The documentary, which has not been publicly released, is about an hour long and follows the stories of five main characters: Alyssa and Marvin, Lorraine and Freddie, and Michelle.
"Now, it's more like a long journey with them over the years," Mohseni said.
That journey has also stretched on for as long as it has in part because Mohseni has had to travel between Paris and Washington on 90-day tourist visas to film. When they started the project, she was a business school student in Paris. On breaks between her banking internships, she would fly to the United States to make the film with Clozel. But when she took a full-time job at a bank, it became harder to make the trips. She worked for a while, but her heart was in the documentary.
"I couldn't picture myself doing that for my whole life when I really wanted to do something else," Mohseni said.
So she quit her job at the end of 2016 to devote herself to making the documentary. Soon after, they found out that they had been awarded a $15,000 grant from the Humanities Council of D.C.
"We couldn't believe it," said Mohseni, who is pursuing a master's degree in documentary filmmaking in France. The money allowed them to purchase video equipment, travel with one of their subjects, Michelle, to Missouri, and to begin editing their film.
Now, Mohseni and Clozel have finally finished filming. They are running a crowdfunding campaign to finance postproduction costs, including editing, color correction, music composition, outreach and distribution costs. They have raised almost half of their $20,000 goal. If they reach their goal, they also want to make donations to the documentary's five protagonists, as well as other collaborators.
Over time, Clozel and Mohseni developed friendships with the documentary's subjects. They have watched the flourishing and straining of Robinson's relationship with Wilson. They have watched them mature, and have been with them during emotional moments, both joyful and difficult.
Once, when Clozel was looking to move out of the house that she was living in, she put out an open call on Facebook asking whether anyone knew of available rooms or apartments in the city. Soon after, Robinson responded and told Clozel that she could stay at her place.
"I was really touched by that," Clozel said.
For Robinson, who is working toward her high school diploma and holding a job at a Chipotle in downtown Washington, being part of the documentary has meant sharing her story about homelessness, showing others how to get through it and pushing back against stereotypical depictions of the homeless.
Ultimately, expressing her deepest thoughts in front of a camera also helped her get perspective on her relationship with Wilson.
"It taught me that you don't have to struggle to be in love," said Robinson, 23. "But if you have to struggle to be in love, you have to struggle together."
And ultimately, she and Wilson were on different pages.
"Marvin wants a single life and to flourish himself, and I wanted to flourish with my family," Robinson said.
The filmmakers said the project opened their eyes to the stark divisions etched deep into the city.
"Washington, D.C., is these two realities: these young urban people who come here for work, and D.C. locals who created an entire culture" and history in the city, Clozel said.
She hopes the documentary can bridge the gap between the two realities.
Making the film, they said, has also taught them about "the varying nature of homelessness."
"It's not just being on the streets," Clozel said. Homelessness can also mean having to crash at a friend's place or having to move from city to city because of high costs.
"It makes you realize that the people surrounding you . . . maybe they're struggling with housing issues and you don't even realize it," Mohseni said.
"I hope that people who will see the film . . . will go out there and be willing to talk to people on the street," she added. "I hope there'll be more exchanges between people with housing and people without."
The first time Robinson watched the documentary, tears flowed.
"I cried," she said. "I could see in the documentary . . . where I was torn and broken down. I could see in the documentary where I was lifted up. I saw it all unfold."
As she watched herself on the screen, she thought, "Damn, I've been through some things."
"I never thought it would unfold like this, but I like how my story is starting to expand," Robinson said. "This is not the end, but the beginning. And it's a beautiful beginning."