Robbed at gunpoint, face to rifle, Lakia Barnett was not sure if she would live or die as she sat on her apartment living room floor, tearfully pleading with her attackers to spare her while visions of her small children flashed through her head.
Already behind on the rent, way past due after both she and her husband had simultaneously lost their jobs a few months earlier, the 32-year-old couldn’t imagine anything more horrendous than being robbed — until she, her husband and three children wound up homeless.
For four years, the tight knit family bounced from one sleeping quarter to the next, eventually finding a semblance of stability inside of the decapitated D.C. General, where they stayed for nearly two years.
“Don’t worry, God will take care of our family,” the oldest sibling, 11-year old Kareem would tell his parents and younger siblings.
Issuing words that spoke life, the family is finally ready to move into their own dwelling, through a D.C. housing voucher, just in time for Christmas.
“Don’t ever assume people are homeless because they were playing around or were on drugs — things happen, so don’t be judgmental,” Barnett said. “You know, I think back during the time that I was actually being robbed. We were the seventh family hit in that region and my husband actually walked in while the robber was pointing his gun at me. … I just thank God that something more traumatic didn’t happen. And then it was like everything else after that was just a giant tornado. We bounced from one relatives couch to the next, but after a while, especially with a large family, everyone at some point outstays their welcome.”
Seeking shelter at the Quality Inn on New York Avenue in D.C., for nine months after leaving the residence of various family matters, Lakia eventually found herself lodged at D.C. General, after her children continued to experience various ear infections, sicknesses and stomach aches.
“Till this day I’m still not quite sure why, but after my children fell ill, we received an emergency transfer to D.C. General,” Barnett said. “It definitely took some time getting use to living there. … All of the horror stories that you see and hear aren’t too far off. You have to be a strong kind of person to live there, but to know that my children were safe and that my husband and I had a roof over our heads was worth it. I mean, through D.C. General my family and I were able to connect with the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, which has assisted us in more ways than one, lifting my kids spirits, giving them a safe place to play and providing them with presents for Christmas. The program actually started on my kids’ wish lists in August to make sure they were able to get what they needed. Now we have a soon to be house, a safe place for our kids to play and presents during the holiday. We made it.”
With almost 9,000 residents experiencing homelessness in D.C. every year — the vast majority being Black — the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, a nonprofit founded in 2003 with the mission to nurture healthy child development and reduce the effects of trauma among children living in temporary housing programs in D.C., shows extra care to people of color, who make up 99 percent of the clientele.
“This year, our organization gave more than 560 children Christmas gifts,” said Melanie Hatter, the project’s communications coordinator. “We distribute the gifts to parents along with wrapping paper, so they can wrap and give the gifts to their children themselves, in addition to our weeklong, year-end holiday parties, which are usually sponsored by a group of volunteers — often a company — that provide food, drinks and activities for the children.
“We’re living in an environment where there is a huge emphasis on the haves and have-nots, which is a shame because we are all out here just trying to live another day,” Hatter said. “When I look at Lakia and see her be able to just sit back and relax for those few hours every day at our facility and laugh while she watches her kids safely play with one another in the evenings, it just helps me remember all of the things that are actually important and the power of extending a helping hand.”
The program seeks to expand their volunteer ranks to include more men, especially men of color, so that children like Kareem can continue to see positive male role models and people who look like them.
“That’s how were all going to survive, by sticking together,” Barnett said. “My journey was a long one, but also a blessing and that’s why it’s important to help each other out. You never know where your story might take you and you could easily be on the giving or receiving end. Our new home will be located in Capitol Hill, which we are set to move into in the new year after inspections, and it is such a great feeling. The holidays are special, but if you can, make it a point to give all year long.”