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How Youth Gives a Homeless Woman a Huge Lift

Off to a bright career as an artist and model, a D.C. resident recalls, “My dream by the time I was 20 was homeownership.” After countless battles, an “unconventional” program helps Niki Davis, now 53, finally buy a condo.

Niki Davis lives in Washington and is a yoga instructor.
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Niki Davis
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Niki Davis
Feb. 26, 2014, 11:55 p.m.

Niki Dav­is, an Army brat born in Texas, even­tu­ally settled with her fam­ily in the Dis­trict of Columbia, be­com­ing a mem­ber of the first four-year gradu­at­ing class of the Duke El­ling­ton School of the Arts. She at­ten­ded the Phil­adelphia Col­lege of Art, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, even­tu­ally go­ing West to be­gin pur­sue paint­ing but also stum­bling in­to a mod­el­ing ca­reer.

There she found suc­cess, but also chal­lenges borne of a de­cline in her health. Now 53 she has re­turned to her ho­met­own, “start­ing again at the bot­tom.” A peer re­ferred her to LIFT, a non­profit star­ted by two Yale stu­dents in 1998 that ad­dresses obstacles posed by poverty. Most fa­mil­i­ar in work­ing with clin­ic­al so­cial work­ers, she was paired with a young LIFT ad­voc­ate — a pro­cess she found un­con­ven­tion­al. Dav­is learned she was eli­gible to pur­chase a condo through a first-time home­buy­ers’ pro­gram for low-in­come in­di­vidu­als. Now, her home in D.C.’s Brook­land neigh­bor­hood re­flects her artist­ic flair. But per­haps more im­port­ant, it has re­stored her hope for a bright­er fu­ture.

This in­ter­view, con­duc­ted by Jody Bran­non, has been ed­ited for length and clar­ity.

It’s im­port­ant to talk about my life be­fore LIFT. My early life ten­ded to be highly re­war­ded. I was able-bod­ied, suc­cess-ori­ented, ex­plored my tal­ents, took risks, achieved goals, traveled the world, had ca­reers. My dream by the time I was 20 was homeown­er­ship. I’d paid off school loans. I star­ted in the fash­ion in­dustry, first as a young mod­el in my 20s, then as a fash­ion agent, and then con­cen­trat­ing more on my art work.

I did well enough in the in­dustry, as a mod­el and an agent, to amass enough money for a down pay­ment to buy prop­erty. But the clinch­ing factor and the reas­on I didn’t stay in the middle class was a pro­gress­ive dis­ab­il­ity. I was dia­gnosed with man­ic de­pres­sion at age 15, but the dia­gnos­is back then was nev­er com­plete. At the height of my health crisis, I was dropped by my fath­er’s good in­sur­ance, and I ended up in pub­lic men­tal-health sys­tem. As my health plummeted, so did my abil­ity to show up and per­form. I went from high in­come to no in­come — the big fall to poverty. And I’ve been crawl­ing out ever since.

In Cali­for­nia, I lost a small job with a well­ness clin­ic that I cher­ished when the na­tion was in eco­nom­ic free fall. The gov­ern­ment drastic­ally re­duced fund­ing for men­tal-health pro­grams — the first of all sys­tems to be cut. Without ser­vices and af­ford­able med­ic­a­tion, I, like so many of friends, re­gressed des­pite dec­ades of pro­gress. I landed back here in D.C. in 2011, start­ing over again. I had sev­er­al bot­toms. I was home­less again. I was job­less again. I was very sick again.

My mom was still here, but I wanted to get out of Cam­bridge, where we lived, on Mary­land’s East­ern Shore, where I could not find ad­equate health care. While stay­ing on my cous­in’s couch in a D.C. sub­urb I found LIFT from an­oth­er pro­gram I was with — through some tre­mend­ous wo­men, with dual dia­gnos­is, Sis­ters Em­power­ing Sis­ters. I was mind-blown. I thought Cali­for­nia had great pro­grams, but this pro­gram is run com­pletely by peers, who’ve found a way to re­cov­er, par­tic­u­larly poor wo­men of col­or who had dealt with home­less­ness, jails, in­sti­tu­tions, re­peated re­lapse, and ad­dic­tion. We found that by help­ing oth­ers, we helped ourselves stay in re­cov­ery.

I found the best ser­vices here — a fant­ast­ic psy­chi­at­rist and a really good ther­ap­ist, then I looked for a place to live. LIFT, from the be­gin­ning, was dra­mat­ic­ally dif­fer­ent than any­where else I had been, start­ing from the way they re­spond on the phone when you call. Oth­er agen­cies I had called either had an­swer­ing ma­chines where I left un­re­turned mes­sages, or got no an­swer at all. If I did get a per­son, I was told there is a wait­ing list with a drone voice and a typ­ic­al gov­ern­ment re­sponse, and it made me feel more hope­less. I could only ima­gine the over­work and frus­tra­tion for all parties in­volved.

LIFT had cheer­ful, fam­ously wel­com­ing voices and a real per­son who told me I could make an ap­point­ment the next week — that knocked me out. I felt like I’d called up a cof­fee house in­stead of a ser­vice agency. Once I ar­rived, I was shocked by the youth, the smiles, and re­cent grads in LIFT T-shirts and jeans. They hooked me up with an ad­voc­ate — someone com­pletely dif­fer­ent in ex­per­i­ences than me who’s lived so many lives. I’ve battled poverty and dis­ab­il­ity in Brook­lyn, Los Angeles, Gl­end­ale, and now D.C. I thought, “What are they go­ing to be able to do for me, these young kids?” I still wasn’t sold on us­ing vo­lun­teer col­lege stu­dents. I was ex­pect­ing a so­cial work­er like al­most all agen­cies. But after my first ap­point­ment, I fi­nally got why it could be suc­cess­ful.

There’s something much more em­power­ing about work­ing col­lab­or­at­ively. The ad­voc­ates didn’t have the life ex­per­i­ence like me, and hadn’t ever had to deal with be­ing a poor adult in an urb­an en­vir­on­ment. She had a great zest and en­thu­si­asm, and a fab­ulous know­ledge of data­bases — a young gen­er­a­tion without the ex­per­i­ence but the brain­power and hope and no loss of spir­it, be­cause it hasn’t been beaten out of them.

It’s a dif­fer­ent pace, a com­plete pos­it­ive be­lief that it can get bet­ter. That let me get out of any sense of hope­less­ness. Even though I wasn’t work­ing with someone with con­nec­tions, there’s a lot of learn­ing that hap­pens when you start on the ground. My pos­sib­il­it­ies were wider. If I was with a tra­di­tion­al so­cial work­er, I’m pos­it­ive we’d nev­er thought about this pro­gram that’s al­low­ing me to buy a house.

We looked for houses in fore­clos­ure and how mort­gages can be cheap­er than rent­ing. I could af­ford to pay $400 a month with only my dis­ab­il­ity in­come, but that’s noth­ing worthy of hu­man de­cency. For $600 or something just above that level, I found that I could ac­tu­ally buy some­place liv­able. So I got hope again.

I went to the hous­ing work­shops, and they were very vig­or­ous pro­grams, and then I learned quickly of the way mort­gages work, about fi­nal sales prices, short sales, and hous­ing for low in­come. I didn’t qual­i­fy at first for first-time home buy­ing be­cause of in­come re­quire­ments. But I got a small job — be­ing in the right place at the right time — to teach yoga to oth­er people in re­cov­ery. With the side job, I was even a bit above the ab­so­lute min­im­um in­come which I be­lieve was around $22,000. Be­ing on a payroll made all the dif­fer­ence, and I’d kept my good cred­it rat­ing all these years.

Jimmy Carter’s Hab­it­at for Hu­man­ity [pro­gram to de­vel­op low-in­come com­plexes] had my fa­vor­ite design and the best prices, but were mostly in areas known for crime and drugs. I’m now in a more ex­pens­ive place, but in a bet­ter, safer neigh­bor­hood. I was able to af­ford a pro­hib­it­ive neigh­bor­hood be­cause of MANNA, a non­profit hous­ing pro­gram fo­cused on anti-poverty and hous­ing for all DC res­id­ents. They did fant­ast­ic work on renov­at­ing an art deco apart­ment build­ing. It’s a dream come true.

My ad­voc­ate helped me find the or­gan­iz­a­tions that are geared to­ward home­buy­ing and home edu­ca­tion. MANNA hand-held me through a very com­plic­ated pro­cess, be­cause I had to deal with four lenders due to re­stric­tions par­tic­u­lar to an in­come-spe­cif­ic build­ing. My ad­voc­ate kept me pa­tient and helped me get all the doc­u­ments needed. By the end of the buy­ing pro­cess, the folks at the MANNA or­gan­iz­a­tion were really pleased, and we be­came deeply bon­ded. Not every­one can per­severe, and I made it all the way to clos­ing. But LIFT gave me all the help I needed. Like I couldn’t find my birth cer­ti­fic­ate. But my ad­voc­ate got it in seconds, com­pared to be­fore, when I couldn’t get it alone when I tried from the Texas base where I was born.

It was com­plete stress re­lease, and most of my meet­ings here are full of laughter. Be­cause now I know there’s a way — between the two of us, we’ll find a way. LIFT deals with poverty, but poverty holds so many is­sues. From the big stuff like ra­cism, sub­stance ab­use, mis­dia­gnos­is, poor health treat­ment, in­ad­equate edu­ca­tion, do­mest­ic vi­ol­ence, miso­gyny, to the loss of be­liev­ing in one­self, and small stuff like need­ing glasses and be­ing shy. Poverty is so wide. It has everything to do with hu­man frailty and hu­man greed and hu­man sep­ar­a­tion. Clearly, ra­cism af­fects poverty. In LIFT, they ask if you’re OK to deal with a per­son from a dif­fer­ent race. That’s one of the many as­pects of the people who work at LIFT that I find fas­cin­at­ing and col­or­ful — they learn through you what the blocks are to eco­nom­ic sus­tain­ab­il­ity, and they’re com­pletely will­ing to tackle it with you.


Jody Brannon contributed to this article.
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