Editor’s note: This is part two of a four-part series on LGBT homelessness. View part one: “D.C. must prioritize housing LGBT youth, trans residents.”
D.C. officials finally seem to be focused on addressing chronic homelessness, but solutions can’t come fast enough for one young man. Darnell Watson, 24, is a gay African-American, native Washingtonian, who has spent most of his life under the care of D.C.’s social service agencies.
Darnell says he entered the child welfare system when he was five years old. His mother died when he was a baby and his father was not in the picture. After being physically abused by his aunt and sexually abused by his uncle, he was placed in the child welfare system. After that, he lived in numerous group homes and foster homes until he aged out of the system. Growing up, Darnell lived in so many different homes that he cannot recall a precise number.
When Darnell aged out of the child welfare system, he went into the Department of Disability Services (DDS) system. After about a year, he signed himself out of the DDS system. “I thought I could do it on my own, but I couldn’t,” he said.
Soon afterward, Darnell became homeless. He was homeless from November 2012- December 2014. During his two years of homelessness, Darnell struggled to eat regularly and to find a safe place to sleep. “A lot of times, I didn’t eat and I didn’t sleep. I would go two or three days without eating or sleeping.”
“I would walk around at night and try to sleep at a rec center.” One recreation center in Northwest, which I am not going to name to protect staffers who broke the rules to help Darnell, would allow him to sleep and take showers there. “I used to work there as a summer job, so they knew me.”
When the weather reached hypothermia temperatures, he would go to another recreation center because “there was a warming shelter.” The warming shelters would open at 8 p.m. and require people to leave at 6 a.m. “I would go out and come back at 8 or 9 a.m. and they would let me back in to lay down.”
Both aforementioned recreation centers gave Darnell clothing. He also stayed in one shelter in Northeast, one in Southeast and “a lot of warming shelters.”
As a gay man, Darnell said he would feel “more comfortable” at a LGBT shelter because there would be “a lot of people that know me and I will feel safer.” He’s never been assaulted at a District shelter, but “a lot of men came on to me. Sometimes I felt uncomfortable.”
Darnell reentered the DDS system in December 2014. He says he is eligible for its services due to having bipolar disorder, ADHD, depression and issues with anger. After asking him numerous times if he was sure that he wanted me to include information about why he was in the DDS system, he said, “Yes. It would help if people would open up and talk more.”
Through a DDS program, Darnell now stays in a transitional unit in Petworth, with a roommate who is also in the program. “I was supposed to be out of the program and into my own apartment in 30 days. The 30 days are up and I have to do another 30. They said they would find me an apartment but I’ve been here over 60 days and I don’t see any signs.”
In addition to being placed in a permanent apartment, Darnell wants to find a job. “I want to work so bad,” he told me repeatedly throughout the interview. He has previously worked at Safeway, Giant and a hair care store. He said having an apartment “can improve me getting a job. It would be better for my mood to have a stable place to live and better for my relationship [with his boyfriend].”
Darnell lights up when asked about the type of work he desires. “I want to do housekeeping. Anything I can do. I love working and I’m a people person. I would love to work in a government building doing cleaning, copying or office work.” Darnell loves to dance and to cook. One of his dreams is to take cooking classes.
It was an absolute pleasure talking to Darnell. Despite all of the challenges that he has faced throughout his young life, he remains hopeful about the future. While we are celebrating advances in LGBT rights and a renaissance in the District, it is important to remember that many people in our community are still struggling. We must ensure that another young person does not have to struggle as Darnell has while aging out or moving from one social service system to another.
I want to help Darnell fulfill his dream of attending cooking classes. If anyone can help, please contact me.