Gwen Wright needed to get to the hospital. The labor pains were radiating from deep in her gut, like pliers twisting her insides. First they were an hour apart, now every 30 minutes. She was a week past her due date, and the baby was coming.
But when she stepped off the subway that spring day in 2015, she turned in the opposite direction from the hospital. She had an appointment to keep – an interview that could change everything for her and her son on the way.
“Sorry I’m late,” she told the women seated at a folding table in a drab conference room at an office in Washington, D.C. They smiled back at her and asked polite questions, nodding as she described her hopes for her son.
At 20, Gwen had no idea how to be a mother. The last time she’d seen her own mother, she was 2. Someone else had tried to be her parent, and then someone else, again and again until – just before Gwen was too old to be in the foster-care system any longer – the pregnancy test strip turned pink.
“I just want him to have a better life than I did,” Gwen explained, holding her protruding stomach.
She knew her son was far more likely to end up in the system, parentless, just as she had been. But she was being given a chance to break that cycle. An organization called Generations of Hope was launching a social experiment that had never been tried before.
The group was constructing a small apartment building where foster kids-turned-moms would live alongside seniors – grandparent-like figures who would offer support but who also needed support themselves. In return for subsidized rent, the moms and seniors would help one another get by.
Gwen was determined to live in the building. So during her 20-minute interview with the women in the office, she avoided talking about her past.
She didn’t tell them about the act of violence that led to her pregnancy.
She’d already had to explain that night to her siblings, who knew she was gay, and she couldn’t bear to describe it again.
She didn’t mention her fear that when her son was placed in her arms, she wouldn’t recognize his features.
Instead, she assured the organizers and herself, her son would not go into foster care. She wouldn’t let people walk in and out of his life, she said.
“I just want my son to be able to say, ‘My mother did all that she could.’”
Then Gwen thanked the women for their time and walked more than a mile to MedStar Washington Hospital Center in the District to prove herself right.
Seven months later, rain was pouring down on Gwen’s new home. She longed to be upstairs in her one-bedroom apartment, with its crisp white walls and humming refrigerator, its cabinets filled with red Hawaiian Punch for herself, Gerber formula for her son, Amarion.
Gwen loved how the apartment smelled. Like nothing. She’d always lived in places filled with other people’s smells.
She was sitting beneath a stuffy tent in the building’s back parking lot, surrounded by all her new neighbors and dozens of important-looking people who had come for the Nov. 19, 2015, grand opening of the building on Georgia Avenue, just south of the Maryland border. It had been named “Genesis” as a symbol of new beginnings.
Gwen took a seat in a row of people in suits. She wore cargo pants. Amarion wore a bib that said, “Spit happens.”
For the past seven months, she’d been learning how to be his mother – how to mash bananas and sweet potatoes the way he liked, how to hold him with his head against her chest, how to decide whether to take him to the doctor. When Amarion wailed for hours in the middle of the night, Gwen would stay awake until 4 a.m. with him, often crying just as hard.
Her new neighbors were struggling with being mothers, too. In a city with more than 1,100 children in foster care, these eight young women had been chosen to keep history from repeating itself. Their own parents had abandoned them, disappeared into prisons or been shot to death.
One young woman had a mother who would whip her naked body with a cord, then pour alcohol into her wounds. When the torture was over, she would take her children out and buy them toys.
Tyaira Barber, 21, grew up praying for her mother to get out of jail, then praying for her to stop doing drugs. Tyaira moved to her sister’s house, then to her cousin’s, to her school friend’s, to her boyfriend’s. She would do anything to hide that she was homeless. She refused to be a foster kid. Until she was 16, and couldn’t hide the growing bump beneath her jeans.
At the same Child and Family Services Agency building where Tyaira turned herself in, Antonee Fox was dropped off by her mother. She was 16. In one arm, she held her 1-year-old son, Noah. In the other, a car seat carrying her infant son, Tarif.
“I can’t do this anymore,” Antonee’s mom told her in the car. “You got two kids. Woman up.” And then all Antonee’s belongings were in seven bags on the agency’s curb, and her mom was pulling away.
Now a $7.2 million, 29-unit apartment building was designed to make sure her kids didn’t end up with the same stories.
“Well, good morning, everybody!” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, D, told the crowd beneath the tent. “Welcome to Ward 4! And welcome home!”
Home. Community. Home. Community. Every person who took to the microphone kept stressing the same words, and each time, the crowd clapped.
Gwen joined them, applauding for all the groups who made this place possible for her: the city, the nonprofits Mi Casa and Generations of Hope, the donors, the social workers who had shaped her childhood.
So far, it was a community of strangers. But the mayor sounded certain it would become much more. Where Genesis stood now, she said, there used to be two large bungalow-style homes.
Both were abandoned. The bushes out front grew wild. In one, squatters lit the roof on fire. They sat empty for years, until the city came and tore them down. And from a pile of rubble, they were trying to build something better.
Gwen’s story started with fire, too. She was 2 years old. Her older brother was 4. Their mother had left them alone in her D.C. apartment. The stove was on. The flames came fast. If it weren’t for the neighbors who knocked down the door, that’s where Gwen’s story would have ended.
She later learned, she said, that her mother was down the street, getting high. She never saw her again.
In the mid-1990s, the crack epidemic was at the end of its rage, and the city was in its withdrawal period.
A flood of children had been left uncared for. The child-welfare system was so overwhelmed it was being sued for negligence. Children were living in temporary emergency shelters. Reports of abuse and malnourishment went uninvestigated. In 1995, a federal judge took control of the system from the District.
Today, social workers call the hundreds of kids who came into the city’s care at that time the “youth bubble” or the “legacy kids.” Without an effective system to find them permanent homes, the children grew up moving from one temporary setting to another, often without ever being adopted.
That was Gwen’s life. First she moved to her grandparents’ house, but her grandmother died soon after. Then she moved in with a family she doesn’t remember. Then to a family she remembers wanting to be adopted by. Even though their teenage son would take Gwen and her younger sister into his room to play “games” that were anything but. Even though the foster mother would whip them with a Home Depot paint stick.
One day at school, her teacher saw the welts. And so Gwen moved again. And again.
By the time she turned 21, she estimated, she had lived in more than 40 places.
The bare cream walls at Genesis exploded with color. Over the course of a year, a mural artist helped the residents paint birds and butterflies using stencils that could be mastered by young and old. Then the artist painted each member of the community onto the walls so every person who walked into the building could see who called this place home.
There was Gwen, holding Amarion in her arms. Tyaira, with 4-year-old daughter Aniya on her lap and 2-year-old daughter Audreyy at her side.
Smiling beside the moms were colorful renderings of the elders: Dellie Reed, a brassy Louisiana native who couldn’t keep her house after her husband died of bone cancer. Ernie Osunkoya, who came from Nigeria to America to be a doctor, and found cocaine instead. Bonnie Duffy Page, who herself had become a mom at 16 – and then a grandmother at 33 – before suffering multiple strokes that limited her mobility.
Together, they had become neighbors, saying hello in the halls, borrowing corn bread mix and can openers, giving one another rides to Walmart. The seniors knew whose child liked to color and whose liked to bang on the piano. Miss Dellie took the older kids to summer camp at her church. Miss Bonnie left her door unlocked so the moms could stop by to watch Wendy Williams with her, or confide how overwhelmed they felt. Mr. Ernie would greet everyone with a drawn-out “helloooo” in his Nigerian accent, then ask, “How are you doing today?”
But the connections they’d made couldn’t erase their problems.
Tyaira was raising her daughters on her own. Her unpredictable schedule as a nursing assistant meant she often needed babysitters, but she barely trusted any of the adults at Genesis enough to let them close to her kids.
Miss Dellie was struggling to pay her rent, but she was too proud to ask anyone in the building for help.
Gwen couldn’t find a steady job, so she enrolled in a city-funded mechanic training program that paid $10.25 an hour. To get Amarion to day care and make it there on time, she had to leave her apartment by 6 a.m. and take three buses. By the time she came back to Genesis, she was too tired to talk to anyone.
Generations of Hope had built intergenerational communities such as this one across the country. There were always growing pains, especially during the first year. But those communities had been centered on adults raising foster children.
Genesis was the first to focus on foster children raising children of their own, and the first to be created in the close, unforgiving quarters of a city apartment building.
Noise was a constant source of conflict. One older woman called the police on a young mom for having her TV too loud. There were fights over who could park in the small lot behind the building. After Miss Bonnie tried to resolve a dispute, she found her tires slashed.
“I was looking for a peaceful place,” she said after she had the tires replaced. “I knew there was going to be some challenges, but I didn’t expect all these issues to come up.”
Many of the young moms had boyfriends who practically lived with them – against the terms of their leases. One woman had given birth to a third child, and two others were pregnant. Some seniors suspected that the boyfriends were responsible for the disappearance of speakers and routers from the community spaces. But kick all the men out, and some of the moms would lose reliable father figures who provided financial support and took out the trash for the older neighbors.
Each week, there was an issue to smooth. The program managers who worked in the building, Wendy Jason and John Kemp, believed Genesis would only work if the community solved its problems together. If they interfered too much, that harmony would never form. If they interfered too little, arguments would boil over into screaming matches in the halls.
So they put their trust in time and filled the evenings with potlucks, Zumba sessions, art classes, “coffee and chat,” “ice cream and chat.”
At weekly ladies’ nights, the women talked hair and doctors and church and – when Miss Bonnie brought vodka and orange juice along – men and relationships.
“You must have done it with a man at least once, right?” one of them asked Gwen one night as 10 women sat around a folding table. They’d seen the way she dressed in baggy clothes and flat-brimmed hats. They’d met the woman she started dating shortly after moving in. They had always wondered about her pregnancy, and she’d never explained.
“Well, I. . .” Gwen started.
“Was it rape?” Miss Dellie asked.
For a moment, Gwen let herself remember that night. Stopping by the 7-Eleven on her way to her foster home. Hearing someone behind her. Taking the shortcut near the woods. Being thrown to the ground. Closing her eyes, waiting for it to be over.
A month later, she bought a pregnancy test and discovered that a violent man’s child was inside her. Yet she didn’t want to get rid of the baby. She didn’t believe in abortion. And having the child, she thought, would mean she would always have a family.
It barely occurred to her to tell her foster mother, or the police, or anyone but her siblings that she had been raped. She had never trusted the adults in her life.
Now, at least, that had changed
She looked up at her neighbors and answered Miss Dellie’s question:
Christmas was coming, and Amarion, now 18 months old,was walking and talking. He looked, thankfully, so much like Gwen. Big brown eyes. Full cheeks. His expressions were serious, except when Gwen plugged her phone in to an old boombox and turned on music. Then he loved to wiggle.
“Are you ready to put up your tree?” Gwen asked him earlier this month.
Amarion reached out to the cardboard box holding the fake white tree Gwen bought for $25 in October, as soon as Walmart set out its Christmas decorations.
Her ex-girlfriend sat in the corner with her headphones and sunglasses on in defiance. When they got together, they had made an agreement: Gwen wouldn’t let people walk in and out of her son’s life. If they were going to be together, Gwen said, her girlfriend would have to commit to being Amarion’s mother even if they broke up.
Then they did break up. And now they were constantly fighting in front of Amarion. But this was the first Christmas Gwen thought he might remember, so she wasn’t about to change her mind.
“Are you going to take your headphones out?” Gwen demanded as she pulled the four-foot tree out of the box.
The headphones stayed in. Gwen looked away and sifted through a Dollar Tree bag filled with blue candy canes and boxes of glittery ornaments. She opened one and found only baubles, no hooks to place them on the tree.
“Didn’t you buy them?” her ex asked.
“When you buy ornaments, wouldn’t you think the hangers would come with it?” Gwen said, distressed.
Her ex shook her head.
“Well, I have never done this!” Gwen snapped.
She walked to her closet and found a bundle of black yarn. Plopping down on the couch, she started cutting it into small pieces. She slipped each strand through the loops on the ornaments, tied the ends together and cut off the extra.
Her son would have golden ornaments. Her son would go see Santa at the mall. Her son would rip open presents on Christmas morning.
“Ready?” she asked him. “Show me where you want it.”
Amarion pointed with a finger covered in melted candy cane. Gwen slid the ornament onto the plastic branch.
Then he tottered away and began playing with the cardboard box instead, like a boy who would never celebrate Christmas without a tree they’d decorated together.