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On a narrow sidewalk in Northeast D.C., sandwiched between a six-lane highway and a motel, Jewel Stroman is fielding calls.
The petite 30-year-old is frazzled. Phone in hand—she’s video chatting with an older black woman who looks gripped by pain—she’s simultaneously yanking her young son back from the curb along New York Avenue NE and flagging down acquaintances wandering out of the Quality Inn & Suites. A woman waits patiently at Stroman’s side. “Hold on,” Stroman says into the phone’s speaker. “I’m going live.”
Like Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White, Stroman is a prolific user of Facebook to livestream her whereabouts, particularly when it comes to community activism. Tonight, in her striped orange beanie and hooded jacket, she’s broadcasting to her estimated 6,000 followers that she’s standing outside the motel, ready to take questions and hear their complaints. She has the tense look of a college student ready to burn down the establishment from the inside.
The motel’s façade is aglow with red and blue light from an ambulance parked by the entrance; in an adjacent parking garage, a domestic dispute rises to a crescendo. Tractor-trailers and 18-wheelers speed with acute force just past its driveway, where a young boy, playing on his bicycle, nearly veers head first into the road. Parents drag reticent toddlers by the arm to the 7-Eleven across the street, playing Frogger with the traffic.
This Quality Inn––a $79-per-night motel that 48 percent of its TripAdvisor ratings say is either “poor” or “terrible”––is a de facto homeless shelter, acting as a crutch for the city’s plan to reconfigure how and where its most vulnerable population lives. D.C.’s Department of Human Services contracts rooms in the hotel for roughly $100 per night, or $3,000 per month, for each family staying in the building. More than 460 homeless families stay in motels like these across the city, a number that includes about 1,000 children.
Stroman comes here regularly of her own volition, legal pad in hand, to talk to residents. She asks them if they’re encountering any problems with the condition of the motel, what they’d like to change about their case management, and how they’re doing, emotionally. She is, for many homeless families, a gatekeeper of their most sensitive personal information and a vessel for their most intimate stories.
She’s an empathetic ear, because for the last decade she’s been in and out of homelessness, too. In fact, Stroman has been on the receiving end of most of DHS’ homelessness prevention programs and housing subsidies––rapid rehousing, targeted affordable housing, transitional housing––and if she hasn’t, she likely knows someone who has. “There were a lot of odds I had to beat, and I had a lot of people telling me I was never going to be anything,” Stroman says of her early adult life.
Through social media and email, Stroman has proven herself the ultimate thorn in the side of anyone unable or unwilling to immediately connect homeless families to support services. Usually that means messaging the staff at DHS, though members of the D.C. Council get their share of her communications. Her emails are unmissable, all studded with a number of distinct tics—punctuation separated from words, unfailingly polite in her use of honorifics but with no intention to back down from her positions. (“I will continue to raise my voice . I understand CFSA is offended by my righteous indignation . I will continue to hold media interviews and speak publicly [about] the ongoing harassment , slander and viciousness of this agency . Good day !” reads one recent email to the city’s child welfare agency.)
A quick email search shows that she has copied this reporter on no fewer than 97 email threads in the last six months alone. She says that’s a fraction of what she’s sent on the whole to city agencies, and estimates that she has personally connected more than 200 families to housing services in the last two years.
And in May, Stroman organized a protest march to DHS headquarters, sponsored by the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, to challenge the District’s financial investments in rapid rehousing, a subsidy program for homeless families that typically ends after a year. (Advocates like Stroman say it’s a revolving door of poverty, forcing recipients back out onto the street when their subsidy runs out; DHS officials argue that no one program is a perfect fit for everyone.)
Her relentless advocacy has, if not totally won over, helped to prompt DHS in June to begin hosting monthly hour-and-a-half-long meetings between agency staff and its clients, where Stroman passes along crowd-sourced complaints she receives from residents of, for example, the Quality Inn. One DHS employee points out that Stroman has been to only two of the six community meetings, while Dora Taylor Lowe, DHS’ communications chief, calls Stroman’s advocacy “instrumental in opening a dialogue between DHS and its clients.”
Some successes under her belt, Stroman is looking to level up, running to represent Advisory Neighborhood Commission 7B07 in Ward 7, where she now lives. The core tenet of her platform is a broad if unsurprising choice: Invest more, and smarter, in affordable housing. It doesn’t hurt Stroman’s case that she has a substantial network of thankful acquaintances who are more than willing to share their own experiences with her. For Stroman, the question now is whether she can weave those stories into a compelling platform to win a seat more known for its petty, eye-rolling disputes than serious policy discussions.
So on this cold October night, amid the chaos of the FaceTime call and the parking garage fight and the incessant honking rush of traffic and her sweet, small, doe-eyed son toddling at her feet, she is aggressively advertising her presence at the Quality Inn, welcoming the slow trickle of people lining up to speak with her.
“I saw you were here on Facebook Live!” a Quality Inn resident named Olga Ooro tells her, chattering a mile a minute. “You are doing such good work here, it’s so important.” (Not everyone is so welcoming. The manager––a diminutive woman with a firm voice who identifies herself as Ms. Alexander––tells Stroman she can’t stand in front of the building if she’s not a resident, forcing her onto the sidewalk.)
The first woman to approach Stroman introduces herself as Ms. Johnson, a 47-year-old mother of eight who has lived at the Quality Inn for close to a year. She almost immediately emphasizes that each person dealing with housing instability has faced different circumstances that led them to this Quality Inn, different obstacles in life preventing them from leaving.
“They think homelessness is the man sitting under the bridge with the bottle in his hand. They think it’s K2. But this is homelessness,” Johnson says, gesturing to the motel, “they” referring to the general public. “I take my kids to school every day. I go looking for jobs.” Stroman stares on at her, pen poised over the legal pad secured in the crook of her arm. She urges Johnson to vote in the November election if she feels so passionately, but Johnson is disillusioned. “Will I vote? Hell no. I’m not voting for no criminals, no liars, no thieves,” Johnson says.
“We have to vote,” Stroman says, growing agitated, “this is how Trump got into office.”
It’s at this point that Johnson launches into an irate lecture about the 2000 election and Texas state officials cooking the books for Bush Jr. and voter suppression in the American South. “It’s no longer ‘we the people’ like it says in the Constitution,” Johnson says, before telling Stroman that there was a “secret” second constitution written in 1817 that the public doesn’t know about.
Her understanding of political life in this country, especially as it pertains to its black residents, has led Johnson to one conclusion about Stroman’s campaign for office. “Miss Jewel,” Johnson says, imploring, “you are wasting your time.” Stroman doesn’t blink. She is used to people telling her she’s crazy.
When she moved to D.C. from her dad’s house in 2007 at the age of 19, with her first child, Stroman did so because it was cheaper than the Maryland suburbs she grew up in.
For emphasis: She moved to D.C. because housing was cheap.
Granted, she admits, the really great deals, like the $659 she paid monthly for a two-bedroom apartment on Brandywine Street SE, weren’t in the best neighborhoods. She notes that her place was just two blocks over from the home of Banita Jacks, the D.C. mother convicted in 2009 of murdering her four children and hiding their remains in her home for eight months.
Still, the apartment gave Stroman freedom. Her father, who raised her alone after her mom died when she was 9, was overprotective, Stroman says, with extensive rules. She couldn’t wear shorts or skirts that were higher than her knees, couldn’t wear nail polish or earrings until she was 16, couldn’t stay out with friends after the street lights would flicker on. “I was always independent. And, honestly, I was dying to get out of my dad’s house. I was just like, ‘I’ve got to go be my own––be my own thing,’” Stroman says.
She was working in an AT&T call center in Virginia from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., raising her oldest child while pregnant with her second. Though it was the dawn of the 2008 financial crisis, her job paid well at $16 an hour. But the hours made it tough to take care of her kids, so she quit. “I didn’t have another job lined up. I thought, it’ll be easy to get another one. It wasn’t,” she says, shaking her head. She got two months behind on rent for her apartment on Brandywine, and she was evicted from the first place that gave her real freedom.
So by the age of 23, with two kids, Stroman was living in shelters and transitional housing programs––first Valley Place, then Partner Arms and a shelter on Meigs Place NE. Partner Arms was operated by Transitional Housing Corporation, now called Housing Up, an affordable housing developer and support services network led for a decade by Polly Donaldson, now the director of D.C.’s housing and community development agency.
Stroman vividly describes being evicted by a case manager at Partner Arms, alleging that she was tossed out in the rain with a two-hour notice to vacate; Stroman believes it was retaliation for being the whistleblower of an alleged financial grifting scheme involving her caseworker and clients’ rent payments. Stroman’s daughter caught pneumonia from exposure, she recalls, and she spent the following weeks battling the eviction decision, taking calls from a judge in the Office of Administrative Hearings while sitting by her daughter’s hospital bed. (“The judge had gotten ahold of Polly [Donaldson] and was chewing her out. She just said, ‘I’m so sorry that Ms. Stroman was put out, that’s not how we operate here at TCP,’ blah blah blah,” Stroman says.)
Donaldson declined City Paper’s request for comment, but a spokesperson for Housing Up denies that Stroman was ever evicted from Partner Arms. “She was transitioned out of our program due to the change in her family composition, which made her ineligible for our transitional housing program,” the spokesperson says, adding that Housing Up helped place Stroman in another transitional housing program with a different organization. The spokesperson declined to comment on personnel matters regarding a former employee, but confirmed that the caseworker in question stopped working at Housing Up shortly before Stroman was notified about her program termination.
“I found that out then,” Stroman says of homeless families’ routine need to advocate for themselves, “that my story was just one of many.”
Public court records show that Stroman was charged between 2008 and 2016 with a string of misdemeanors, and in one case a felony, for threats to commit assault or for assault on a police officer. (The felony charge, in 2008, was filed as “prisoner escape.”) She typically received at least 180 days of jail time and court-ordered anger management as a condition of her probation.
Stroman appealed the 2016 misdemeanor conviction in the DC Court of Appeals, arguing that during the arrest, when she was five months pregnant, the officers “dragged” and “kicked” her. She describes having a “busted lip and black eye.” The precipitating incident for Stroman’s arrest, according to her appellant brief, was an outstanding bench warrant for a $50 unpaid court fee discovered while she was checking in to the United Medical Center’s domestic violence intake clinic.
During Stroman’s initial trial, she acknowledged resisting arrest, and described the anger and fear that led her to do so. (The Metropolitan Police Department officers involved alleged in court that Stroman attempted to bite and kick them.) “I kept saying, you know, can somebody call my husband or call my dad, please, and come and get my kids. Like I was begging, I was crying,” she said, according to a partial transcript presented in her appellant brief. “And the officer that just testified … I will never forget this, she looked me in my face and said, ‘your kids will be okay, because CPS is coming for your kids, don’t worry about your kids.’”
The appeals court ruled against her in this case.
She recounts these events clinically, as if she knows she won’t be believed. “I’m just telling you all this because when people see ‘assault on a police officer,’” she says, “they don’t understand.”
As she navigated the system of homeless services in D.C., Stroman faced housing instability while pregnant and had multiple brushes with the District’s child welfare agency. She has lobbied for more equitable social services in D.C. longer than much of the existing agency staff has even worked for the city. (“Ms. Stroman has been a vocal advocate for families since long before I got here,” says Larry Handerhan, Chief of Staff to DHS Director Laura Zeilinger.)
Stroman is now building her candidacy on the promise to champion the city’s poorest, and her campaign comes in the middle of a marked shift in the landscape of homeless services in D.C. Demolition on the campus of D.C. General, a former hospital that became the city’s largest family homeless shelter, hosting at its peak some 300 families—Stroman among them—began earlier this fall, capping years of similar promises made by previous mayors. Smaller, apartment-style homeless shelters are slowly opening across the city in every ward.
Mayor Muriel Bowser, meanwhile, boasts record investments into a “trust fund” for spending on affordable housing, and family homelessness has made a healthy decline over the last year. But the number of single homeless adults has increased since a 2017 point-in-time count, and there are slightly more homeless people in D.C. today than there were five years ago. Data also indicate that the supply of deeply affordable rental homes actually dropped by nearly 12,000 units between 2006 and 2016, a period spanning the administrations of Anthony Williams, Adrian Fenty, Vincent Gray, and Bowser.
There is no easy narrative for the story of affordable housing in D.C., but Stroman’s point is this: While few argue against building new homeless shelters (though some have tried) or throwing more dollars at affordable housing, there has to be a bigger vision for the city that includes building equitably for long-time Washingtonians. It involves deciding who we’re building for.
Translating Stroman’s work and relationships into votes is another question entirely. The homeless move frequently, based on whole hosts of circumstances both positive and negative that are almost always out of their control, and it is hard to plan a life around that kind of instability. For many, like Ms. Johnson, feelings of betrayal preclude voting of any kind. Why bother when the system will only fail you?
Stroman is unlike most other political candidates in facing concerns like these. It’s hard to run a campaign predicated on geography when rootlessness marks many of your constituents’ lives.
At her kitchen table in late September, Stroman is visibly tired. Her home is immaculate—tidy, spacious, speckled with baby toys—on a quiet tree-lined block on the eastern fringes of Ward 7. She’s living here with the help of a targeted affordable housing subsidy, a longer-term housing stabilization program run by DHS. (Three weeks after this meeting, the heater will break when the weather turns cold, and she’ll have a days-long fight to get it repaired, looping in DHS on emails to her property manager.)
On this morning, she’s peering over the shoulder of Kim Lehmkuhl, a communications strategist and member of the D.C. area’s chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, the left-wing political organization that has ballooned in both size and clout since Donald Trump’s election in 2016.
Metro DC DSA recently endorsed Stroman in her ANC race, and the organization has offered free campaign consulting services to the candidates it supports. It’s part of DSA’s effort to bring attention back to neighborhood-level political races—the places where, Lehmkuhl says, residents should have a say in deeper policy issues, “not, like, ‘this guy on my block is pissing me off.’”
On her laptop, Lehmkuhl has blown up one of Stroman’s flyers, and is advising the candidate to remove some of the photos layered in a thick collage to make room for punchy one-liners about her platform, like promises to fight for the inclusion of more affordable housing in new development projects. Stroman’s opponent, D.L. Humphrey, has campaigned on boosting “community safety,” and Lehmkuhl warns Stroman against making similarly generic statements. The two women discuss for some time whether to include a photo of Stroman smiling next to Bowser before finally settling on removing it. (“When I see a picture of you with Muriel, I’m like… but your positions are way better than hers!” Lehmkuhl yelps.)
“The role [of ANC] attracts a certain type of person––particularly the white, petty tyrant reactionary types who like to tell people ‘no,’” Lehmkuhl tells me some weeks later. (She adds, as an aside, that “the ANC down the street from me is in Barracks Row, and they [think] it’s OK to put people in prison for panhandling.”) But Lehmkuhl, who says she believes the DSA has “the best birds-eye view of who all these commissioners are, and who needs to go,” considers Stroman “such a breath of fresh air,” referring to her as an “invaluable advocate.”
“She’s successful at helping people navigate the system,” says Brianne Nadeau, the Ward 1 councilmember who served for two terms as a commissioner in ANC1B, and who has met with Stroman to dispense campaign advice. “There’s red tape, and one of things we do is help constituents cut through red tape. Jewel is one of them. I have a lot of respect for her work as an advocate.”
The admiration is mutual. Stroman loves—that’s her word, loves—Nadeau, who also chairs the Council committee responsible for overseeing homeless services in the District. Stroman’s Facebook page is peppered with selfies of the two taken during coffee meetings, the pair smiling brightly.
She’s not so complimentary to pretty much any other political figure in D.C. On former mayor Adrian Fenty: “I think Fenty was awful.” On former mayor and current Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray: “I don’t know how he got to be a councilperson, other than the fact that he has a lot of money and political contacts.” On the landscape of D.C. politics, writ large: “I’m not really seeing anyone that I can be impressed with.” (Neither Fenty nor Gray responded to City Paper’s requests for comment. )
But she’s open about her willingness to say that to them directly—she’s been known to “chew them out” when she sees them in public, Stroman says, and knows that she can reliably find Gray at her neighborhood Safeway if she has grievances to air.
And during then-mayor Fenty’s 2010 bid for reelection, Stroman bumped into him on the street. As she tells it, she “grilled him,” asking “What are you going to do for the city? You’re saying all these things to the cameras, well now the cameras aren’t here, so what are you going to do?”—before he hired her on the spot, she says, to work in constituent outreach. She spent the next month before the election knocking on doors and making calls for him. (“Also,” she adds, “I needed the money.”)
She does admire Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White and the relationship he shares with voters, noting that several of the families she’s worked with have cited him as a positive force in their lives. Take even a cursory glance at his Facebook and Instagram accounts, and you’ll see what she means. I ask Stroman what she made of the criticism he received this year for perpetuating anti-Semitic conspiracy theories at a Council breakfast; Stroman was unaware of the incident and subsequent backlash.
For parts of the city with low voter turnout, the kind of political fervor White inspires is indispensable. Fewer than 12 percent of people in Ward 7 voted in June’s primary, still higher than Ward 8’s 8 percent. (“We’re talking about a quarter of the population of the District of Columbia—150,000 people—that don’t feel connected to the city,” Gray told The Post about his ward’s emotional investment in local politics.)
“I am very skeptical of whether we can affect change a lot,” Lehmkuhl acknowledges. “But I’m not willing to stop trying.” She’ll canvass for Stroman in the three weeks leading up to the election.
There’s an element of physical dislocation to voters’ apathy, too: Just getting across the river can be a chore. One evening in early October, Stroman suggests meeting at a library near her house, adjacent to her kids’ school. At 6:15 p.m., it takes 20 minutes to drive four blocks across downtown D.C., the pavement awash in the red glow of brake lights.
The bus drives along Independence Avenue SE, past the Capitol building, past the Library of Congress, past the church with an electric sign that reads “the second Christian Jesus Jam,” and keeps going. The sky grows darker until all you can see is the glow of big white buildings, spotlights trained on American flags. The bus is never quite full.
Sitting in the library, it’s the first time Jewel is completely still––not transcribing stories from her clients or shouting into a megaphone, not editing a campaign flyer. Just sitting, elegant with high-waisted gray pants and her hands in her lap, polite but inscrutable.
The thing is, she admits, is that she is tired. She gets three, maybe four hours of sleep a night. At only 30, she feels like she’s getting old. What nobody tells you about advocating, Stroman says, is “how hard it is to carry your own problems on top of everyone else’s.” (“There is such a high burnout rate [for ANCs], because people have another job. It’s thankless,” Nadeau says. “You’re an elected leader with responsibility with a small amount of authority, and with very few resources. It’s not for people who are looking for glamour.”)
Stroman now has seven children––ages 13, 11, 9, 5, 3, and 2, with her youngest turning 1 in just a few days. They appear to be her world. Few topics agitate Stroman, but her kids are one of them. (Videos on Stroman’s Facebook page from several years ago show her driving around a Southeast street looking for a woman who she said had made derogatory comments about her children.)
Look carefully, and her kids are what she repeatedly credits, in all of her correspondence with DHS, for caring at all about the heat going out in her home, or families sitting in the night without shelter.
They are also always present. Physically, sometimes––like her 5-year-old looking on solemnly as she talks to fellow mothers at the Quality Inn––but also in the stories she tells. Stroman cracks a radiant smile when she says that her oldest daughter brags on her to friends, proud that she’s running for office. She talks about how she loves to help them read.
When she’s alone, and not taking care of them, she loves to write. Anything, really, but she turns most often to poetry and short fiction––writing about “the things that I’ve been through in my life,” she says. She also likes telling other people’s stories.
She writes songs, too. One is called “Blue Honor,” and it’s a searching three-minute ode to police brutality and the black lives lost at its hands. (“There’s very few people able to cut through that noise and say, ‘You have to listen to me,’” Lehmkuhl says of Stroman.) In it, Stroman name-checks a number of black Americans who died violently at the hands of police officers and in jail, including Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and Eric Garner.
But at the beginning, the very first names you hear are those of young Emmett Till and Tamir Rice, boys murdered before their lives had even begun.
It reads, in part:
It started out with Emmett Till back in ’55Fast forward 2015 they killed Tamir Rice … And they wonder why we rioted in BaltimoreIf ain’t nobody hearin’ us, then what the fuck we marchin’ for?
There her kids are, omnipresent. “I want them to learn how to have a voice, and not to be scared to use it,” Stroman says, reciting an oft-quoted line from Desmond Tutu about neutral parties picking the side of the oppressor. “I want them to not be scared to speak up for themselves, and for other people.”