Robyn Ball-Harris dropped out of high school after the 10th grade because, she said, “the streets were more important to me.” The streets were more important to her because that’s where the drugs were. The drugs were important because Robyn felt she needed them to bury a horror she lived with.
“It was the worst thing in the world, your own people touching you,” she said. “I didn’t want anybody to know. It was like a big secret.”
I met Robyn at Miriam’s House, a 25-unit building in Northwest Washington that provides permanent supportive housing for women who have been homeless. It’s run by N Street Village, a nonprofit that helps women lift themselves from despair. Robyn, 59, has lived at Miriam’s House since 2016.
“I call it home. It took me a long time to find that word,” she said.
Robyn had a rough childhood. When she was 2, her mother was killed in a car accident. Her father remarried and then left that marriage, leaving Robyn and her sisters with their stepmother. Later, the children moved in with an aunt.
Robyn was in grade school when older male relatives began sexually abusing her.
“My family, they said ‘Hello’ like this,” she said, squeezing the side of her breast.
The abuse left Robyn feeling ashamed. “I thought I was the only person this was happening to. . . . I never wanted anybody to find out about it.”
Robyn is candid about her life, about how her health was ravaged by drugs and by the things she once did to get them. When she found out she had contracted HIV, she thought her life was over.
“I just wanted to die,” she said. “People didn’t even want to breathe the same air that you were breathing. I remember my father, when I went to see him, telling me to wash the glass out with bleach. I’m like, him of all people. That broke my heart.”
At her lowest point, Robyn felt she had lost her soul. “I didn’t have anybody who truly cared about me,” she said.
Robyn was at an AA meeting when she witnessed another woman relate her story of incest.
“I was wondering how she could sit there and talk about this and be all right with it,” Robyn said.
How could someone in a room full of strangers recount the same experience Robyn had for so long felt shame about? Maybe, Robyn thought, it wasn’t her fault at all.
In 2014, Robyn spent three months living in the women’s shelter at D.C. General. That’s where she learned about N Street Village, whose day center near Logan Circle is a warm and welcoming place for women who live on the streets.
“I never even knew a place like that existed,” she said. “You can come in from the street, bathe, eat. They have programs that you can go to, different groups to learn life skills. I wound up in their rehab facility.”
After completing N Street Village’s addiction recovery program, Robyn moved to Miriam’s House, where all the residents are HIV positive. She takes a single pill a day to keep the virus in check.
Said Robyn: “I have all the support that I need right here. I never had family before. So now I consider N Street my family.”
Four days a week, Robyn goes to Roosevelt High School to work on some unfinished business. She’s earning her GED.
“I’ll be 60 in April,” she said. “I’ll be 60 years old and getting my high school diploma. I’m going to get it. I’m going to be able to hold it up and say, ‘I finally got it!’ ”
You can help
Robyn is one of the strongest, most astute people I’ve ever met. She’s able to look at her life with admirable clarity and self-awareness. And she wants to help others.
“When I talk about it now,” she told me, “I hope somebody is listening, and they can hear what I’m saying so they can get help, so it doesn’t have to go the way my life took a turn. They don’t have to live in the darkness anymore. They can come out into the light.”
You can help women like Robyn come into the light. N Street Village is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand, our annual fundraising campaign. You can support the work it does by visiting PostHelpingHand.com and clicking “Donate.”
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.