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Skyler Kelley hasn’t updated her Twitter cover photo in years. Her daughter, Emma, is just a baby in the image. That snoozing child is five now, but Kelley can’t swap in something more recent because she looks at that photo any time she has doubts about her ambitions to make D.C. a better place for single unhoused mothers to find their way.
“It’s a photo I took back when I was homeless and I’d go to Rock Creek Park with Emma,” Kelley says. “We’d sit in the grass on a blanket someone gave us. I remember taking that photo and crying because I was like, ‘What is next?’ I’m in one of the country’s most expensive cities. I don’t have a job. I don’t know what to do and I have a one-year-old.”
Kelley, 27, is from Atlanta but moved to D.C. in 2015 determined to break what she calls a “cycle of poverty” in her intimate circle. She recounts moving from shelter to shelter when she was young. Her mother never called them that, though. She called them “places” to stifle the stigma.
“D.C. has always been a calling on my life,” Kelley explains. She arrived here through what’s known as a “church plant,” when a church opens a satellite location in another city. “I came up with Grace Midtown from Atlanta, who planted a church in D.C. called Grace Capitol City.” It’s located at 2201 P St. NW. “I have always felt God leading me to this city,” Kelley says.
When Kelley arrived, she got a job at the Adams Morgan coffee shop and eatery Tryst. “It was the best job I’ve ever had,” she says. “But two months in, I was sexually assaulted.” She kept working. “Two months later, I found out I was pregnant. I freaked out and went back to Georgia,” she says.
That’s where she gave birth to Emma. “When she was younger, it was hard,” Kelley says. “I was very detached from her, but she’s getting older and it’s great. I’m happy to be a mother. It’s hard, but I can do it.”
When Kelley moved back to D.C. in 2017 because she couldn’t find housing in Atlanta and her relationship with her family was worsening, she slept in her car for about a year. She frequently parked at a Walmart in Alexandria so she’d have a restroom to use. It was a hardship she hopes no other single moms searching for housing have to endure. “When I was homeless, I went through so much,” she says. “There was a lack of resources for single homeless mothers.”
There are some places women can turn to for help in D.C. N Street Village, for example, focuses on supporting women with “health or mental health problems, substance abuse or addiction, a history of trauma, a lack of educational and vocational opportunities, job loss or eviction, domestic violence, a criminal background or other barriers to employment, or functional illiteracy.”
“You can walk around and complain, or you can do something about it,” Kelley says. “After I got all of the help I could from the city, I said I’d give back to the city.” Her dream is to open a drop-in day center for unhoused single mothers named Emma’s Place, after her daughter. Women would be able to come in to take a shower, gather resources like free diapers, wash their clothes, have a meal, or use a computer to look for jobs. “I met so many [women] on my journey, I know they’re out there,” she says.
But first, coffee, wine, and jazz. Before Kelley launches Emma’s Place she wants to be entrenched in the local community and raise some money. She’s always been drawn to the service industry and took a hospitality course through The Brooks Group Training, which enrolls students who receive TANF benefits. That helped her get a job with Marriott and move into a condo in Germantown.
She started behind the desk at a hotel before landing a job at the Marriott’s headquarters right before the pandemic. When she was laid off, she formed her own LLC and began working toward opening Brij Coffeehouse & Juicebar while simultaneously studying for at least an associate’s degree at Montgomery College.
“I knew I wanted to do something to get my name out there so people recognized that this is a young lady on a mission,” Kelley says. “Starting your own business is a great way to have a footprint in the community. I tell people Brij is a means to an end. It’s the bridge to Emma’s Place.”
The plan is for Brij to be a coffee shop by day and a wine lounge in the evenings with regular live music. She says Grace Street Coffee Roasters will be her roasting partner and she plans to source gluten-free and vegan treats from Rise Bakery. (She worked at Rise during the time she was unhoused.) At night, Kelley imagines a menu of comfort foods. Most of all, Kelley wants Brij to be the District’s go-to date spot. “I love seeing people on a date,” she says. “What’s more romantic than a wine bar or lounge with some jazz in the background?”
To prepare for the eventual opening, Kelley has been hosting “Wine-Down Jazz Nights” twice a month since September 2020 in a friend’s backyard in D.C. “We pay local artists who aren’t well known to play,” she explains. “I give out complimentary food and wine and sometimes sell my juices. I have a crowd every time.” The next one is scheduled for June 26; more information about the events and tickets are available on Facebook.
Kelley is determined to find a space for Brij in Northeast and is currently working with commercial realtor Lisa Banusiewicz. She loves the neighborhood that surrounds Union Market and thinks her business would be an asset to the fast-developing area. St. Anselm is her favorite restaurant.
“I’ve always envisioned myself there,” Kelley says. “In Northeast, there are more businesses coming, but there aren’t a lot of Black businesses and I thought, ‘We should be a part of this developing.” (There is one Black-owned coffee shop near Union Market—The Village Cafe.)
Next on her agenda is trying to set up a meeting with Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, who frequently champions small business in the District, to learn if there are any grant or loan opportunities to help Brij Coffeehouse & Juicebar get off the ground once she signs a lease. Raising money is daunting for any first-time entrepreneur.
“Sometimes I get discouraged and I think, ‘Who do I think I am?’” Kelley shares. Fortunately she has the photo of her baby daughter to remind her. “I’m not playing the race card, but I’m a young, Black, single mom with no education. Sometimes I take a step back and think, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Then I remember my why. I refuse to give up.”