Before the rats nipped at her in the darkness. Before the flies swarmed to the jar turned toilet she kept nearby. Before she started to wonder whether she was more feral than human because she’d forgotten what it felt like to sleep inside, Danielle Gardner was a girl who liked to practice writing her name.
Danielle Kathryn Gardner
Danielle K. Gardner
She filled pages with it, and sometimes she let herself imagine scribbling it in the books she hoped to one day write.
“I always wanted to be an author,” the 37-year-old says, recalling how shortly after she learned to read, she started finding comfort in words. “I didn’t have anyone I could express myself to, and when I would open up books, it was like they understood me. When I was reading, it was like that was my friend. When I wrote, it was like I was talking to a friend.”
Poems. Short stories. An interesting twist of phrase. They all came easy to Gardner, keeping her company even when other parts of her life fell away — and so many fell away.
To see Gardner now, wearing a black turtleneck, sitting on a gray couch in her apartment in Northwest Washington, it is easy to picture her in a book club or reaching for a K-Cup at the office.
She looks relaxed. She looks confident.
She looks as if having a front door and a kitchen and a bathroom has long been her normal.
But she has been living in that apartment for only about two months, and she has been off the streets for only about six months.
Up until September, she was sleeping on the front porch of a mold-filled, condemned house on S Street. It was her childhood home, she explains, and that made it familiar, if not comfortable.
She closed her eyes each night to the sound of traffic and barking dogs. One evening, someone threw a glass bottle at her. Another time, a man stopped his car to tell her it was 30 degrees. He didn’t invite her to sit in his car to get warm. He just wanted to let her know it was too cold to be sleeping outside, as if she didn’t already know.
Gardner knew no human should be living in those conditions, but she was also starting to feel less sure she was human.
“I was starting to lose my identity,” she recalls. “I didn’t know what it was like to use a toilet. I didn’t know what it was like to get out of bed. I was thinking of going to live at the National Geographic park because I was questioning, was I an animal?”
How Gardner went from there to where she is now (to the remarkable place where she will soon be — signing books at a Barnes & Noble) is an important story. It shows how far over the edge mental illnesses can yank some people, and what it takes sometimes to pull them back.
It also shows how the homelessness problem in the nation’s capital goes beyond just finding housing for people.
Right now, we’re all feeling unsteady because of covid-19, but the region’s homeless were vulnerable before the coronavirus that causes it arrived in the area, are more vulnerable now that it’s here and will remain vulnerable long after most of our lives return to normal (which I really hope is soon).
“Danielle’s mom used to call me every morning,” says Navid Daee, a program director at Community Connections, the city’s largest not-for-profit mental health agency. He recalls her saying, “Please help her.”
Daee says the organization has spent the past several years rethinking and reconfiguring how it approaches young adults with mental illnesses. Instead of focusing on their problems, the staff tries to focus on their goals. They also try to listen to what is important to them, which is why the building now has a recording studio in its basement that people line up to use.
It is also why Gardner has a book on a shelf in her apartment that bears her name.
Patrick Riegert, a program coordinator for Community Connections, says the organization partnered with Lift Bridge Publishing to offer a writing class in November. Gardner was eager to participate, he says, and spent time outside the class working on her writing and taking pictures that could be used for illustrations.
She and two other people made it through the class together and had their work published in the book, which is titled, “Our Voices, Our Words.”
Gardner carefully flips through the pages that afternoon, stopping at a poem that begins, “Excuse me, mister.”
It is the one poem in the book she wrote before starting the class. She says the words came to her as a teenager, when she was mourning the boyfriend who got her pregnant and was killed in jail.
“All along just lacerated me, didn’t have any sympathy,” it reads. “You thought I’d fall as you stood tall. Now whose back is against the wall?”
When Gardner talks about her life, she doesn’t try to brush over the ugly or hide the details that people might judge her for. She shares even the wince-worthy ones. She describes not only how a stranger once bought her a box of tampons, but also how when she didn’t have any, she would make her own from socks.
She talks openly about her criminal record and drug addictions. She has used K2 and crack and once, after smoking PCP, woke up in a hospital with a tracheotomy tube in her throat.
Gardner says that she was diagnosed with depression and schizophrenia, and that if she looks back in her life, she can now recognize how her disability once made things seem real to her that weren’t. There were times when she grew paranoid that the TV was watching her and that well-known artists were stealing lyrics from her. She would hear a line in an R. Kelly or Beyoncé song and tell friends, in earnest, that she had written them.
Once, she says, she saw a bus ad featuring a fish and convinced herself that she needed to get home, climb in the tub and take 15 Haloperidol pills. She says it was one of her many suicide attempts. During another one, she picked up a ringing phone, heard a man talking to her and “felt like someone cared.” She still doesn’t know whether anyone really called.
Gardner says she had a good childhood, and for a while, she worked with special education students for D.C. Public Schools. But that was a long time ago. She estimates that she has lived in various states of homelessness — with friends, in shelters and on the street — for about 10 years.
She credits her mom, who told her over the phone in September to “get herself together,” with pulling her from homelessness, and Community Connections with helping her stay out of it.
A hospital photo from October that Gardner keeps in her purse shows a different person. In it, her eyelids look heavy, her face lifeless.
“I won’t let myself down,” Gardner says, insisting she’s not going back to her old life. She has been rebuilding her relationships with her children, whom her mom and other relatives have been raising, and she now talks excitedly about playing Uno with them and piling into bed with them.
“I will no longer be a noun — a person, a place or a thing,” she says. “I am a verb now. I am action now.”
She survives now. She mothers now. She writes now.
So many of her written words have been lost over the years: The short stories she used to compose in eighth grade about her classmates. The poems she used to type on a computer at work and delete. The slips of paper she would place between bricks when she was homeless, intending to finish the poems on them later, only to find them gone.
But now, she has a book, with her name in it, and people can buy it on Amazon. The significance of that is not lost on her.
“I’m a published author,” she says. “I feel so accomplished.”
A book signing was supposed to take place at the end of the month at the Barnes & Nobles at Howard University. But like many events right now, it has been postponed.
The delay doesn’t bother Gardner, though. It just gives her more time to prepare.
“I got to work on my signature,” she says, “and get my best pen out.”
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