City Paper is not for tourists
Dehkontee Chanchan blows in with her short braids and Montgomery College sweatshirt and plops down on the living room couch at HER Place, a transitional home in Brookland for young women in harm’s way. The 24-year-old dean’s list student talks fast and gestures even faster. Her life, she explains, requires swift action, particularly when opportunity presents itself.
Raised in Liberia, Chanchan moved to D.C. when she was nine and lived a transient life between family and foster care for years until she became a ward of the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services. From shelter house to halfway house and eventually high school, she always took advantage of her surroundings and sometimes took grief for it.
“Taking the next step was challenging,” she says of her graduation from Washington Metropolitan High School in 2013. “A variety of girls are going through trauma, and some will test you. People tested me because they had their own misery. I knew what I wanted to do.”
For a time she worked in customer service. Everything was fine, she says, until she was placed in Maryland by the D.C. foster care agency and started working in an Annapolis factory with foreign nationals, “slave-like,” for a couple of years. People started entering her life, says Chanchan, and a series of losses—wallet, I.D., job, girlfriend—led her to a vacant house in Greenbelt and a high-risk lifestyle. “Oh my God,” she laughs. “There was some days.”
Chanchan stayed out of jail “by the grace of God,” she says. Feeling she might hurt someone or be hurt, she reconnected with DYRS and checked into another shelter. “It was terrible, but I had no option,” she says.
Determined to move forward, she found a foster home and, with help from HER Resiliency—an organization that helps women in the D.C. area who are looking to overcome addiction, homelessness, and related issues—got her Social Security card, passport, “everything,” she says. She entered an independent living program and now holds down a night job as a concierge. She’s in school during the day. She has also become a peer associate for HER, which entails doing street outreach and speaking on panels.
“I have patience and faith,” she says of her path. “I try to think about positive outcomes.” Which is what makes her an ideal fit for HER.
HER Resiliency Center is the brainchild of Natasha Guynes, who describes the group’s name—which is not an acronym—as being “For her by her. And all that are involved are part of the makeup of HER.”
HER is more than a recovery or outreach program, and more than a transitional living space, Guynes says: It’s a holistic approach to self-empowerment that treats its peers as equal partners in the organization. On this December day, Guynes and her partners are in a buoyant mood as they settle into their new home after a two-year, grassroots effort within a world of social services agencies that vie for scarce resources to meet their collective needs.
The detached brick home, leased with the help of a D.C. Department of Human Services sub-grant from DC Doors, a 501(c)(3) organization with a similar mission, smells of fresh paint and refinished wood floors. Furniture donated by Miss Pixie’s antiques lends a retro-hip vibe, and framed posters are waiting to be hung. The open floorplan leads to a dining area, brand new kitchen, and an outdoor deck. “I thought we could do some yoga out there,” Guynes says, guiding me to a staircase.
The second floor bedrooms serve as small offices for the staff, which she plans to expand. Sarah Levant, HER’s skills and strengths facilitator and wellness and training manager, is busy at a spare desk in one the rooms. Levant, who is getting her master’s in social work, started at HER as a part-time intern in 2016 and helped write her own grant for a full-time position. “To get a home in such a short period of time is a testament to [our] real outcomes,” says Levant, who specializes in direct community outreach. “Not just getting women into housing, but into a job and services.”
The group’s “trauma informed approach” is intuitive to Guynes. Born to a teenage mother in Louisiana, she grew up around an abusive father with a drug addiction problem. At age 20, she left her home in Norman, Oklahoma, and found herself living in D.C., abusing alcohol and drugs, and using sex for survival. Pregnant and homeless, she contemplated suicide at one point, until she reached out for help and was guided to a 12-step recovery program. Trust in others came slowly, she says, but enabled her to get into AmeriCorps, where she delved into the female recovery community. She earned a bachelor’s in political science from Trinity Washington University and worked her way into a front office manager position with Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, and administrative director positions with Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Brian Schatz of Hawaii. Currently she is studying for a master’s in public administration from the University of Baltimore. She is 16 years sober.
Guynes founded HER Resiliency Center in May 2015 to support young women in overcoming challenges that place them in jeopardy. Its broad range of funding sources mirrors its comprehensive approach to helping women, says Guynes, who opened an office in February 2016 with just enough to cover rent, costs, and insurance. HER’s first grant, from Shared Hope International, an organization focused on ending sex trafficking, came in July 2016 and led to a grant from D.C.’s Office of Victim Services in October 2016. Last December, HER received a grant from Rachel’s Legacy Fund to support homeless women. Yet another DHS grant supports its Street Outreach Program. Last week, the group held its first annual holiday party at HER Place.
“People’s stories are different, but we all have the same conditions,” she says of the desperate struggle to escape abuse and addiction. “We need a safe place to live, a support system, help to get a degree, help to get a job. Learning to share those feelings of isolation and shame breaks the cycle. What’s better than talking to someone who can share a similar experience but came out the other side?”
As Chanchan shared her story, Helenia Bragg, the house monitor, listened. Bragg grew up in a rough part of Alexandria in the 70’s and 80’s and experienced drug addiction, homelessness, and incarceration. With a no-nonsense air in her pressed jeans, crisp gingham shirt, and shiny black shoes, she exudes curiosity and joy.
“It’s my first time meeting [Chanchan] but I love her,” she says with a raspy laugh. “I’m so impressed with the dean’s list. I struggled to get C’s.” Bragg’s long road to becoming an employee of HER gives her seniority and perspective. “I’m so happy you didn’t have to enter the criminal justice system,” she tells Chanchan. “That record will follow you forever.”
Illegal activity was the norm in Bragg’s house growing up, she says, declining to offer too many details. “I never worked the system. I never wanted to participate. I never saw myself as anything other than an addict or a thief. I liked to say, ‘I’m gonna die high.’”
In 2002, Bragg ran into an old friend from the projects who had become a director at Phoenix House, a drug and alcohol rehab facility: “‘You wanna get clean, come by at 8 am tomorrow,’ he told me. I showed up at 7:45.”
She relapsed, but through a prison program found a benefactor: Doris Buffett, sister of billionaire mogul Warren Buffett and founder of The Sunshine Lady Foundation. “She had us write a letter saying how we would use education to benefit ourselves. And she chose me!” With assistance from the foundation, Bragg got her associate’s degree from Piedmont Community College and now attends Howard University for a degree in social work. She says she embraced Buffett’s condition for assistance. “I had to help someone else,” Bragg says. “For the first time, it gave me some self-worth. This billionaire had read my story and listened. I started to think, ‘I don’t need to die high,’ that there’s a purpose for me to be living today.”
By this time, Chanchan, exhausted from her relentless schedule, had dozed off on the couch. “They don’t need to be 60 to start life over,” Bragg says, gazing over at the future of HER. “I think 24 is a fine age to do it.”