When I met Evelyn — a woman who has been sober since July 4, 1991, after decades of drug and alcohol abuse — I asked her something I'm always curious about: The momentum of your life had you careering in one direction. Why change it then?
Evelyn thought back to July 3, 1991, the day before she embraced the lifeline that a District charity called N Street Village offered her.
"I hoped and prayed that the bottom I hit was the last bottom, because they told me I could dig my hole as deep as I wanted," she said. "I hoped I dug it as deep as it could go. I didn't want to dig it no deeper."
Evelyn put down the shovel and started climbing. How many of us would have the strength for that climb?
She never knew her real parents, had been raised in foster care, been abused and then ran away at age 15.
“From 15 until 38 years old, when I came into the program, I was out there living like . . .”
Evelyn reached for the right analogy.
“I would say like ‘The Addams Family’: Do what you want to do, act like you want to act.”
She moved from Baltimore to Washington, favoring the area around 14th Street NW, which in the 1980s was the perfect place for an addict to lose herself. It was also the home of N Street Village, a nonprofit organization for women experiencing homelessness that had grown out of Luther Place Memorial Church.
“I was helpless, homeless and hopeless,” said Evelyn, 64.
At first, she partook of the Village’s day center, a safe space where women could get a meal, take a shower and wash some clothes.
Over time, Evelyn got to know the folks at N Street Village better. When they offered to send her to a rehab program, she accepted.
“They told me if I did something different, I would get something different,” she said.
That was in early 1991. Evelyn was in a detox program for a week, then an inpatient program for a month.
“When I got out, N Street picked me up,” she said. Waiting for her was a bed, some clothes, a meal — “all the stuff I hadn’t had in a long time.”
Evelyn relapsed once but recommitted herself to sobriety on the Fourth of July in 1991. She started volunteering with N Street Village and then decided what she really wanted was a job with the charity. After all, she had a lot in common with the clients.
Evelyn joined the staff in 1995. Today she is manager of day services at the N Street Village’s flagship location, the Bethany Women’s Center on N Street NW between 13th and 14th.
Her job? “Making sure that the ladies have a safe place to come,” she said. “We welcome any women that come in from the outside,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where they come from, from 14th Street to Cambodia. Wherever they come from, we are here to welcome them and make sure we can give information that will help them make it through the day, even if it’s only sitting here listening.”
I asked Evelyn how much of her own life she shared.
“My story’s an open book,” she said. “I don’t hide myself. But I don’t sit there and throw myself all out there. If somebody comes and they’re going through the motions — and if I can say something from my story to help them to just hold on one more day — then I don’t mind revealing myself. But I’m not going to sit there and have a bullhorn when somebody walks in the door.”
For 23 years, Evelyn was basically homeless. I asked her what she thinks of how we think of people like her. She told a story about riding a bus not long ago as it went past a soup kitchen. A few of her fellow passengers remarked on the "lazy" people there.
“I was boiling inside,” she said. “What people don’t know is there’s all kinds of reasons why people are homeless.
“What you’ve got to do is get to know someone. I always say that nobody’s crazy 24 hours a day. You’ve got to get to know someone to know what’s going on with them.”
I’m glad I’ve gotten to know Evelyn.
Will you help?
N Street Village is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand. To help women like Evelyn help themselves, visit posthelpinghand.com and click where it says "Donate." To give 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, D.C., 20005.
Join me at 2 p.m. Tuesday for a Facebook Live chat with Schroeder Stribling, N Street Village's CEO. Go to facebook.com/washingtonpost.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.