The Invisibles -- Parts 1 and 2

I'm proud to say that I was instrumental in reuniting a homeless woman and her daughter (now 30) who hadn't seen each other in 25 years. The daughter did a Google search which turned up her mother's name and mine in the same article. The daughter then contacted me by e-mail (as my personal/contact information is very easily found through a Google search). I connected her to the man who wrote the article and he completed the connection.

Here is a blog post I did in 2009. JOE YOUNG, the reporter whose article started the process whereby MYRA DIGGS and her daughter were united last month (right before Christmas), asked me in 2009 to post his article on my blog. Little did I know that it would lead to this reunion of a mother and daughter who hadn't seen each other in 25 years.....

Everything below this line was written (or copied and pasted) April 28th, 2009:

The following is an article by Joe Young, a writer for the Washington Informer and Afro. It is part of a series of articles that he will eventually have done on the homeless people of DC. You can view the accompanying photos by befriending ERIC SHEPTOCK on Facebook. (Include a note saying that you read my blog or I might deny the request due to not recognizing you).

Mr. Young will publish an article about me soon. He asked that I post this on my blog.....

The Invisibles
The untold story of homelessness in the nation’s capital By Joseph Young
Special to the AFRO
First in a series

- Everybody knows there is a problem of homelessness in the nation’s capital, but most people don’t have to see it. They put blinders on at the sight of homeless people, thus, invisibility becomes another burden the homeless have to bear.

It felt like spring in Franklin Park where winter had let up for a day, and the sunshine brought out a crowd of homeless people who basked in the unexpected warmth.

Another boon: alfresco winter dining on the free hot meals several charitable organizations provided, along with clothing.

“The rewards of coming out are being able to share a message of hope and a message of love for all the people that are out here,” said Sherry Hall with the Front Royal, Va.- based Street Wise Ministries. “We try to meet some needs.”

But the needs of the District’s homeless are as varied as their stories.

Myra Christiana Diggs’ untreated bipolar disorder and eventual drug abuse led to her descent into homelessness.

Shawn Lewis had to choose between an abusive relationship and homelessness last year when the father of her children raised his fist to hit her—she chose life on the streets.

Jesse Joyner, 57, joined the ranks of the District’s homeless when his apartment building was converted to condominiums he couldn’t afford.

Sylvester Monroe Pressley-Bey, 50, self-medicated with illicit drugs, trying to escape the mental horrors of war. Instead, it led the veteran down the path of homelessness.

Washington, D.C., has an estimated 6,228 residents who are homeless in 2009, says the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness.

The Washington-based Youth Service Opportunity Project, though, estimates the number of homeless people in the District to be much higher. They place the figure closer to 10,000, a third of whom are veterans.

But it’s the city’s poor that mostly count among the abject wanderers seen on D.C. streets every day, says Debbie Billet-Roumell, coordinator of the DC Women’s Agenda.

Of the District’s total population of 588,292, about 110,000 live in poverty, she said, and the poor are easily forced into homelessness.

The U.S. economic crisis, though, tells another story, a story in which the faces of the homeless are changing.

With the economic and foreclosure crises, many middle-class Americans are losing their homes and their jobs.

They try to find work, only to discover there is none. And with no income to pay rent or mortgage, some find themselves learning the steps of the homeless shuffle: They go to the shelter in the evening. Come morning, they go to a breakfast program to eat. After breakfast, they go to some public space such as a library or park and wait there until the shelter reopens again. Repeat cycle.

The homeless do not fit one general description, but they do have certain shared needs, including affordable housing, adequate incomes and health care. More importantly, some say, in a society that doesn’t seem to care about the homeless, they need to be recognized as people, too.

In interviews conducted over three months in parks, on the streets and at homeless shelters, dozens of homeless people opened up about their lives. They want the blinders off, they said, so they can be seen for who they are.

Mental Diagnosis Gone Awry

Myra Christiana Diggs is tall and lean and has caramel skin and big, brown eyes. In earlier times, she might have been mistaken as a model. Now, the 43-year-old isn’t turning many heads.
Diggs’ journey to homelessness began when she was 6 years old and her mother took her to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for a mental health examination.

"My mother always thought that something was wrong with me,” Diggs says. “I was always hyper and always talkative. Some days I would shut down and not say anything.”

At the hospital, Diggs was given a series of tests, which she passed with flying colors. Her doctor also found that everything was fine.

But everything was not fine—the extreme mood swing continued and went undiagnosed and untreated until 12 years ago when it was discovered that she suffered from a bipolar disorder, a disease triggered by an imbalance of some key chemicals in the brain.

To cope with her long bouts of depression—a symptom of the disease—then-21-year-old Diggs turned to drugs–crack cocaine, LSD, PCP and marijuana—and that accelerated her downward spiral.

“I dropped out of a nursing program to use drugs,” she said, “and to hang out with the hustlers.”
But Diggs did not hustle the streets; the streets hustled Diggs. To support her growing cravings for a chemical high, she soon turned to prostitution for which she has been arrested many times.
“I tried to stop using drugs,” Diggs says, “but I couldn’t.”

Four years ago, Diggs’ descent bottomed out when she became homeless. She stays in the Harriet Tubman Shelter, which provides emergency shelter for women and children.

“I don’t have an apartment of my own,” Diggs said. “I don’t own keys that I can stick in the door and have my own privacy.”

Diggs is on the waiting list for housing with Pathway to Housing D.C., a program that aims to end homelessness for people living with psychiatric disabilities. The program also provides support and treatment for their recovery and integration into the mainstream of society.

It’s been a long wait, Diggs said, but things are looking up.

“I should have been housed two years ago,” she said. “But they are trying to help me now. They see that I am a serious person.”

Read more profiles next week.


(April 8, 2009) -

Part 2

Bad Choices

Wheelchair- bound, Odell Lott sat on a wintry December night outside the Community of Creative Non-Violence, looking on with wrinkled brow at the teeming crowd of homeless men and women gathered along the street.

Lott, who casts an imposing figure despite his disability, is the go-to man for answers about the plight of the homeless in the nation’s capitol. After all, he is one of them; he too has a story.

It’s a story laced with regret.

“It’s like my mother said, ‘The bed you make up; the bed you lay in.’ It hurts, but I got to deal with it,” Lott said of his path to homelessness.

Three years ago, after years spent in a federal prison on a drug conviction, the 65-year-old was released and went to live with his brother. But Lott’s stay in his brother’s basement apartment lasted a week.

“I didn’t feel like I was welcomed, so I came here,” Lott said.

Though the D.C. man says he takes full responsibility for his adult decisions, adulthood came by way of childhood adversity, he said. He never knew his father and his mother did her best raising the family of seven boys and two girls.

“Her and the welfare…,” Lott said, shaking his head. “Coming up in a household with just a woman, things is lacking.”

With memory comes bitterness and Lott launches into a tangential but well-placed kick at racism—something else he blames for his childhood woes.

“The White man has everything, and the Black man ain’t got nothing,” he said. “One may have a big car, a home on the hill, but he ain’t got a (expletive) thing.”

Lott’s anger quickly subsided as regret again reared its head.

Lott dropped out of school when he was an eighth-grader at Terrell Junior High.

“I got so…I thought that I was smarter than the teacher,” he said, in subdued tones. “I hurt myself, but I’ve got to do the best I can with what I got.”

He wondered, though, if life could have been any different under a different set of circumstances.

“Some people grow up with one parent, and they [are] lawyers and doctors,” Lott mused. “I guess it all depends upon the individual. Maybe I could have been a different guy than what I am now…. I don’t know.”

By age 28, Lott was selling and using drugs, mainly heroin and cocaine. He sold drugs to feed his drug use, “trick with the girls” and buy a shiny new Cadillac.

“I didn’t ever think I would ever go broke again,” Lott recalled.

But his new newfound wealth also brought him to the attention of the police. He was arrested numerous times over the last 40 years since he first began selling and using drugs and was eventually sent to federal prison. He has been drug free for only the past year.

“A damn fool and money will soon part,” Lott philosophized. “That’s what I was, a damn fool, and here I am.”


Lott was placed on a DC Housing Authority waiting list for a rent subsidy voucher, he said, but that was three years ago. And so he waits…with face pressed against an eternal winter.


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