I met Lakia Barnett on an overcast September morning in 2018. A client of a legal clinic at Georgetown Law, where I teach, she agreed to tell me the story of her family’s search for housing and sta-bility in the DC metro area. Lakia was a married, Black, mother of three in her thirties. She didn’t own a car, so I agreed to pick her up and take her to lunch at a restaurant of her choosing for the inter-view, a respite for two mothers while our kids were in school. The Barnett family lived in Southeast DC, east of the Anacostia River in Ward Eight, the city’s poorest ward.The drive from the law school, near halls of Congress and courts superior and Supreme, to Lakia’s home took about fourteen minutes.
I drove the interstate past Southwest DC, remade by urban renewal and gentriﬁcation, and MLK Boulevard. Lakia’s block in Garﬁeld Heights, minutes from the Maryland border, seemed sturdy and unremarkable. I parked in front of a modest, brick row house. A chain-link fence enclosed a small front yard that offered little room for child’s play.I entered the gate and knocked on the door, and Lakia emerged, engaged in an urgent conversation on her cellphone.
She nodded, followed me to my car, and continued talking, rattling instructions to a volunteer for a production that she and other women were putting on. They were staging monologues to tell their stories of pain and tri-umph and inspire others; it was Lakia’s brainchild and new mission. With long extensions that she twisted as she talked, Lakia sounded more like an entertainment producer than a HUD voucher holder who had recently moved from a homeless shelter.She escaped by luck, pluck, and ﬁerce advocacy on her behalf from a Georgetown Law student and faculty advisor. Lakia had known stability. In 2013, she and her husband had been living in the same apartment for seven years, in a working-class Black neighbor-hood in Temple Hills, Maryland, until hell came to them. Simultane-ously, they were both laid off and soon fell behind on rent. Then they were robbed. Masked men invaded in the early afternoon, perhaps not expecting an unemployed parent at home with young kids. Lakia recalled staring at the gun in her face as she pleaded with the invad-ers not to harm her children. The Barnetts were the seventh family in the area to be robbed. The invaders stole all their valuables and the rent money they had accumulated.
“Everything else after that was just a tornado,” she said. “We ﬁled a police report. They didn’t ﬁnd [the robbers] and I don’t think the police really cared. They may have even suspected us.” The sheriff came to evict them with no notice. “They told us to get out immediately,” she said.Broke, they moved in with Lakia’s mother in Northeast DC af-ter which the mother herself was soon evicted. The Barnetts spent the next two years moving, from family to friends to hotels, wher-ever they could stay until they wore out their welcome or ran out of money. Lakia and her husband, who prefers to remain anonymous, tried hard to ﬁnd jobs. “No one would hire us,” Lakia said of this period. “We had high school diplomas but no clear skills.” Lakia had worked with children at a YMCA until that program was shuttered and she was laid off. Her husband had been a concierge at an apart-ment building.
Lakia described herself as “very hands-on with my children.” She could not afford childcare and could only work during school hours. She managed to get hired as a dietary aide at a hospital, delivering trays of food to patients. After about a year, she was ﬁred abruptly by a supervisor who would not accommodate her request for time off to deal with her mother’s emergency hospitalization and yet another eviction. “I was not allowed to have any error in my life,” she said of her supervisor.
The Barnetts lived on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), family donations, and informal work her husband found. Lakia’s friends, shocked when she announced she was expecting a third child, encouraged her to abort. They had two sons and after she gave birth to a girl, her husband told her, “I knew this was my girl because everybody wanted us to get rid of her.” They were a devoted, Christian family that held on to each other through turbulence.A week after her daughter was born, Lakia relented and went to an intake center for DC homeless shelters. They lived in a squalid hotel on New York Avenue in Northeast DC for nine months. “It was terrible,” she said. A wet ceiling dripped on her asthmatic son. His eyes swelled, and her other son developed issues with his stomach. There were ﬁghts among residents, and prostitutes hailed customers across the street from the hotel.This was Lakia’s ﬁrst experience living in concentrated poverty. She felt that about half the residents were people like herself, who were “trying hard to do things right,” she said. The other half had succumbed to hopelessness. “A lot of people there had lost a sense of life,” Lakia said of residents who took or sold drugs or engaged in other destructive behavior.
“You have to understand,” she elaborated, “some people do things because they don’t see any other way to survive.” Lakia tried to make the best of the hotel-shelter. She organized a dance group for young girls who lived there and found herself minis-tering to residents. She became an advocate for women in the shelter, particularly those who had been abused domestically or sexually. She is still haunted by the day she watched as an infant was taken from a mother, purportedly because of the deeds of a violent boyfriend.The Barnetts moved to DC General after Lakia complained about health risks to her children. This large shelter on the premises of a former hospital, which has since closed, “felt like a prison,” she said. The security guards and some staff were “nasty” and treated resi-dents like they were “the lowest,” she stated. “A lot of people have been misunderstood because they are homeless. They have feelings, ambition, goals but they didn’t know how to execute” to achieve them.
At the shelter, she said, “there was no room to see the individ-ual, to ﬁnd out what passions or vision they had to make themselves better.” The attitude of the staff was “just go take anything” for a job, even though working at a McDonald’s, she said, might not be a sustainable path. “No one would know from my being homeless that I could publish two books, host my own radio show, or start a [theater] movement” for women, she said proudly of her journey.
The decaying DC General homeless shelter was infested by rats, and bugs that bit children. A baby died there. An eight-year-old, Rel-isha Rudd, was taken from the building by a janitor in 2014 and was never found. An investigation revealed more than a dozen claims of shelter employees sexually abusing tenants.2 Mayor Muriel Bowser closed the shelter in 2018, replacing it with six smaller facilities scat-tered throughout the city, including one erected in afﬂuent Ward Three, over the objections of some locals. While living at DC Gen-eral, Lakia learned to tap the resources and networks of service pro-viders, particularly an onsite legal clinic.Georgetown’s Health Justice Alliance set out to improve outcomes for poor families by addressing multiple social determinants of their health, including stable housing and quality education. A Georgetown Law student helped Lakia advocate for her children. Both sons have dyslexia and other disabilities. The student-lawyer helped Lakia negotiate the DC school lottery. In DC’s segregated school system, a “great” school meant a whiter school than Lakia was used to. The elementary school her sons had attended had a way of “dropping the ball,” she said.
Through the lottery, they accessed better options. Her younger son, Jermel, was placed at School Within A School Elemen-tary, its child-centered teaching philosophy inspired by the Reggio Emilia schools of Italy, which Lakia described as “really great.” The school had more of a “mixture” of students and more “structure” than where he had been, she said.Lakia’s advocate helped her acquire an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for both her sons. The federal government grants about $12 billion annually to states and localities to pay for services for the 10 percent of American children with special needs.
Copyright © 2021 by Sheryll Cashin. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.