Tokyo Direkston sits in a new homeless day services center that opened in Washington in February. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Tokyo Direkston wore two weeks of filth.

She hadn’t bathed. She hadn’t changed. She had spent those weeks smoking crack and caring about not much else. Not sleep. Not food. Not the menstruation stains on her clothes that showed she could not stop chasing that high long enough to even take care of that.

“Go home,” a friend told her. Tokyo ignored her and went to borrow money from a neighbor.

“Go home,” that neighbor told her. She ignored her, too.

Finally, a third person told her, “Go home, Tokyo. This is not you.”

“It took three different people three different times telling me the same thing,” she said. “Finally, I went home.”

At home, she slept, showered and decided she needed to enter a treatment center to break a decade-long addiction that had cost her jobs and left her at times homeless, eating from garbage cans and sleeping outside.

I first met Tokyo on Monday at the opening of a homeless day services center in Northwest Washington. It was one of those events where officials give speeches and ribbons are cut. At one point, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) addressed the crowd to discuss the importance of the center, describing it as “one stop to get people on a pathway to a permanent home.” Others gave equally impassioned speeches.

But Tokyo’s presence said more than anyone’s words could. Her standing there showed why the center was needed and its potential to change lives.

She wasn’t there to use it. She was there to run it.

“I am the best person for the job because I’ve been there. I absolutely get it,” said Tokyo, who is the program manager at the center. “I truly believe with everything inside of me that I was purposely put back here for a do-over. Not many people get to have a do-over. For me, this is my do-over.”

What Tokyo understands is that some people are just a job away from getting out of homelessness and other people are so deeply rooted in it, because of addictions and mental illness, that they can’t be easily pulled out.

“Everybody who comes to this center initially is not coming for housing,” she said. “That’s fine. But see, for me, you keep coming back and eventually, we’re going to engage you. You’re going to be the one person who didn’t want to tell us your name, but after a while, you’re going to get so used to us seeing you, eventually you’re going to forget you didn’t tell us when I ask, ‘What’s your name again?’ And that’s how we start to turn a corner.”

On the day the center opened in the basement of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, the crowd was a mix of people in suits and people who carried all their belongings in plastic bags and suitcases. But the next day, it was filled with only the staff and the homeless. The latter had started arriving an hour before the center opened and by noon, nearly 40 homeless men and women had come. Some took showers and drank coffee before leaving. Some sat in front of computers, settling in for a while.

The center, which is managed by the DowntownDC Business Improvement District (BID), offers them coffee, food, haircuts, showers, laundry services, health care and access to Department of Motor Vehicles and vital records services.

“You okay?” Tokyo asked one man as she walked by him.

“Lot better than I was,” he said.

When she walked by him a second time, she casually tucked a clementine in his hands.

It’s important to Tokyo that people feel respected at the center.

“You don’t want people to feel demeaned,” she said. “I’ve been there. The most humiliating thing for me was having to stand in line for a shower. The thing that really got to me is that I had to share a deodorant.”

She recalled how she once stood in line for food and then when she finally looked at her plate, she had no idea what she was about to eat. Often, she said, she would go to Union Station and stand above the food court watching people take bites. When they would head to a garbage can, she would swoop in behind them, pick up what they tossed and cut away the parts their mouths had touched before finishing the rest.

But that was many years ago, before her do-over. As she tells it, crack pulled her in shortly after she came to the District in 1987 to teach carpentry to ex-offenders. She ended up hanging out with her students, and eventually picking up their habits, because they were the only people she knew in the city.

In 1999, when she finally entered a treatment center, she recalled yelling out, “Lord, help me” during a seven-day detox. Detox was then followed by several residential programs and eventually a stay at a D.C. halfway house. She said she was determined to follow through with the program because she realized she had never really finished anything in her life.

Twenty years later, she has a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree. And her ultimate dream, if she can find a way to afford it, is to get a PhD.

Tokyo didn’t cry when she told me about how she ate from the garbage can or even how she lost both breasts to cancer in 2012. The tears came only when she talked about her education. She said she went back to school and got those degrees because she “wanted to matter.”

“I was always told I was really stupid and there was no sense in me going to college because I wasn’t smart enough,” she said. “I carry that with me to this day, that I’m stupid. At 66, I still believe that, that I’m just not worthy. Not all the time, but some of the time.”

A PhD, she said, will fulfill not only a personal goal but also allow her to help more people. She is working on starting a nonprofit in Baltimore, where she lives, called “We R Living Proof.” Her hope is that through it, she can get a row of houses “on both sides of the street,” so she can teach the homeless there how to rebuild them and turn them into their own homes.

In Washington, even though the center has been open only a few days, she can already tell there will be regulars who count on those services. For them, she said, she plans to make sure the center is open every weekday 9 to 5, no matter the weather.

“When it’s snowing, guess what?” she said. “People are still homeless. There are still people out there, on the street, in a sleeping bag, homeless. I have to be open because where else are they going to get a shower? Where else are they going to get a hot cup of coffee? When everybody is shut down, where are they going? They’re going to see Ms. Tokyo, that’s where they’re going.”

As a man walked out of the center, rolling a suitcase behind him, he stopped when he saw Tokyo.

“Thank you, guys,” he said.

“Alright, love,” she said. “See you next time.”