“Don’t forget about me,” Danette heckled from the back of the crowd as Cropp talked. Danette, 36, is only 5-foot-2, but her voice, gravelly after years of smoking, projected like a cannonball. “What about my children? We got no place to live.”

Surrounded by cameras, Cropp rushed over to Danette, who broke down in tears while telling her story. Cropp, who later lost the mayoral primary to Democratic rival Adrian Fenty, shook Danette’s hand and asked a nearby staff member to help her.

Over the next two months, Danette called one of Cropp’s aides three or four times. She didn’t hear back from him. Eventually, she gave up on the aide and called Cropp’s D.C. Council office. Danette didn’t really think Cropp or any other mayoral candidate could solve her problem. But she didn’t want to let city officials off the hook.

A Long Way Home
Danette Tucker’s desperate search for an affordable place to live

By Tyler Currie
Sunday, December 17, 2006; Page W12

FOR ONE BRIEF MOMENT LAST SPRING, Danette Tucker became the face of Washington’s affordable housing crisis.

It happened while she was sitting outside the Columbia Heights Giant one afternoon in May, eating a hot dog and smoking a cigarette on a 15-minute break from her job at the grocery store. She looked to her right and saw a commotion. D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams was endorsing city council chairwoman Linda Cropp’s mayoral candidacy at a joint news conference.

A snarl of reporters and supporters listened as Cropp lauded the economic resurgence of the District and, in particular, that of Columbia Heights. She pointed to a nearby construction pit where yet another vacant lot was being transformed, in this case into a $150 million shopping center. She rejoiced that the new grocery store had brought 180 jobs to neighborhood residents.

Danette, one of those 180 residents, fumed as she listened, unable to recognize the prosperous world that Cropp described. Danette couldn’t afford her gas bill, let alone the stratospheric rents that were about to drive her from the neighborhood. In just a few months, when her lease expired on a three-bedroom duplex that she’d been renting from an affordable housing program, Danette and her two children, 13-year-old De’Vaughn and 9-year-old Imani, would have to pack their bags.

“Don’t forget about me,” Danette heckled from the back of the crowd as Cropp talked. Danette, 36, is only 5-foot-2, but her voice, gravelly after years of smoking, projected like a cannonball. “What about my children? We got no place to live.”

Surrounded by cameras, Cropp rushed over to Danette, who broke down in tears while telling her story. Cropp, who later lost the mayoral primary to Democratic rival Adrian Fenty, shook Danette’s hand and asked a nearby staff member to help her.

Over the next two months, Danette called one of Cropp’s aides three or four times. She didn’t hear back from him. Eventually, she gave up on the aide and called Cropp’s D.C. Council office. Danette didn’t really think Cropp or any other mayoral candidate could solve her problem. But she didn’t want to let city officials off the hook.

“This is about principle,” Danette explained at the time. “I want them to recognize that there’s a lot of us out here, and there’s mothers and kids that got no place to live.”

Not long after leaving a message for Cropp, Danette’s cellphone rang. It was the D.C. Council chairwoman returning her call. Danette put her on speakerphone.

“Do you remember who I am?” Danette asked.

“I’m trying,” Cropp said.

“I was the lady at Giant, on the day that you announced your candidacy.”

“Oh, yes, you were crying.”

“That was me,” Danette said, quickly recounting her housing woes. Cropp listened, then offered Danette the name and number of the same aide who hadn’t returned her phone calls. Cropp promised that this time Danette would get a response.

A few days later, she did. The aide took note of Danette’s story and said he’d get back to her, but Danette wasn’t holding her breath. She knew that in her search for affordable housing, she and her children were on their own.

TWO MONTHS AFTER HER SIDEWALK ENCOUNTER with Cropp, Danette arrives at the D.C. Housing Authority, a few blocks north of the Capitol, and presents herself at a waiting room reception desk. Without looking up, the woman behind the desk spits out directions: “If you’re here for the first time, sign in and grab an application. If you’re here just to update, sign in and sit down.”

“Yes ma’am,” Danette says. No application needed — this is hardly her first visit. She scribbles her name below dozens of signatures and drops into a red plastic seat, taking her place among a crowd of 20 bored-looking people.

For more than two years, Danette has been returning here, hoping her name reaches the top of a very long waiting list of folks seeking an affordable place to live. Now she is running out of time.

Her three-bedroom duplex in Columbia Heights belongs to a nonprofit housing provider that allows its low-income tenants to stay a maximum of three years. The duplex has been a godsend. Danette pays only $240 a month in rent, while a few blocks away, one-bedroom apartments are renting for $1,774. But her lease expires at the end of August.

After that, Danette says, “I don’t know where we gonna go.”

Although her plight is increasingly common in Washington, Danette is hardly typical of those struggling to keep a roof over their heads. A quick-witted extrovert, she showed so much ability in high school that she was admitted to Vassar, one of the country’s most selective colleges, before throwing away much of her promise on a disastrous marriage. She once worked in broadcast journalism but now is an assistant manager-in-training at a Giant Food supermarket for $7.60 an hour. She says she gets zero support — cash or otherwise — from her seldom-seen ex-husband.

Danette anxiously tugs at one of her short twists of hair, which is still more pepper than salt, as she flips through a 12-page list of apartment buildings printed off the Web site of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. She has inked black slashes beside many of the properties that she has called, none of which has a vacancy. Most are beyond her reach anyway.

Based on what she makes at Giant, Danette should spend about $480 a month, or 30 percent of her income, a common standard of affordability, on rent and utilities. But in Washington, the average rent has risen to $1,321, according to a recent report by the Fannie Mae Foundation and the Urban Institute. The report describes a housing market whose bottom tier has all but vanished.

Danette thinks she could scrape together $600 or $700 a month for a cheap two-bedroom apartment in what she calls “the heart of the ‘hood” — the city’s most violent neighborhoods. Even then, she’d need to pile more work on top of her typical 50-hour week at Giant. “I don’t want to get stuck in that,” she says. “I don’t want to get stuck not being able to save any money, because all I’d be doing is working and hustling just to pay rent.”

Instead, Danette is pinning her hopes on a federally funded rent subsidy program called the Housing Choice Voucher Program, commonly known as Section 8. Nearly 52,000 households in the District — about one in five — are on the waiting list for housing assistance, according to the D.C. Housing Authority. The queue includes people hoping for a Section 8 voucher, which virtually guarantees affordability by paying the difference between 30 percent of a household’s income and the fair-market rent. It also includes those interested in living in the city’s public housing complexes.

Danette knows the wait for assistance can span decades, but she believes she’s on the verge of getting a voucher. “I’m due,” she says bluntly. Her confidence, in part, depends on a trump card: Homeless people get first dibs when vouchers become available, and because Danette’s current lease is temporary, federal rules define her as homeless.

It makes for a bizarre paradox: Homelessness, she says, is her best route to finding a home. So she has ruled out signing a lease on any apartment, even in the unlikely event that she finds an affordable one. Without a Section 8 voucher, she reasons, a barely affordable place could become unaffordable as soon as rents rose. “Right now, the top of my priority list is to get that voucher. I’m going to stay homeless until I get it,” she says. “Once you sign that lease . . . you ain’t homeless no more.”

What she doesn’t know is that 16,000 other households on the Section 8 waiting list are also considered homeless.

If a voucher doesn’t arrive by moving day, Danette and her kids have invitations to crash with various family members. (Federal rules also categorize transient house guests as homeless.) But Danette is thinking about registering with a shelter, in case of a “monkey wrench.” It’s a term that’s never far from her lips. A monkey wrench, Danette explains, “is when any one little thing goes wrong, causing your whole life to go to hell.”

Danette leans close to a nearby woman who is also waiting and sitting on one of the housing authority’s hard plastic seats. The woman has fiery red lipstick, deep blue eye shadow, and a tangle of braids piled on her head. She’s talking into her cellphone about an apartment building, and Danette is eavesdropping.

“Excuse me, baby, which building you talking about?” Danette asks when the woman hangs up.

“Place over near Fort Stanton Park” in Southeast Washington, says the woman.

Do they have vacancies? Danette asks. The woman isn’t sure but offers a phone number, which Danette calls. A leasing agent tells her that there are apartments available. One-bedrooms cost $780. Two-bedrooms are $975. Section 8 vouchers are welcome, news that causes Danette to smile.

“Danette Tucker!” yells the woman behind the reception desk.

Danette rushes up after an hour-long wait.

“What are you here for?”

“Status check,” Danette says. The woman takes Danette’s paperwork and steps away. “I don’t trust these people to keep up with nothing,” Danette says softly. She’s petrified of bureaucratic glitches such as the one that she says caused a neighbor to vanish from the Section 8 waiting list. Danette visits or phones the housing authority every few weeks to make sure something like that doesn’t happen to her.

Soon the woman behind the desk returns to tell Danette that she’s “current,” meaning her name is still on the list. The woman passes Danette an officially stamped form, proof of the visit. Danette places the evidence in a folder, alongside a sheaf of identical receipts.

“Can you say when I might come up?” Danette asks.

“No, I can’t,” the woman says politely.

Danette isn’t surprised. It’s always the same answer. “Thank you,” Danette says. “See you next time.”

TWENTY YEARS AGO, Danette didn’t envision being in such a predicament. She was a much different person then, and Washington was a much different city.

Danette grew up in a tiny, two-bedroom brick rowhouse on Potomac Avenue in Southeast, on an isolated residential block where the homes are overshadowed by an elevated stretch of Interstate 295. Her father, Kenneth, was a Metrobus driver; her mother, Cynthia, worked as a secretary at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Cynthia took some college classes, but she and her husband never earned degrees. Danette and her younger sister, Kennedra, would be different, their parents vowed.

The Tuckers declined to be interviewed for this article, citing a wish for privacy, but according to other relatives and friends, education was a sermon often preached at 919 Potomac Ave.

“There were definitely a lot of high expectations placed on Danette by her parents,” says Erica Berry, an attorney and program analyst for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, who has known Danette since sixth grade. They met at a city-sponsored academic enrichment program for high-achieving students.

Danette went to a public elementary school but says the caliber of the local junior high school appalled her parents, who sent her to a Catholic school instead. After classes — and between ballet lessons — she loved playing basketball at a nearby recreation center. Her friends remember her as ultra-competitive and a gifted trash-talker.

“She was always the outgoing, loud one,” says Diane Thompson, a longtime friend who works in accounts payable for IBM. “Everyone knew her, and she knew everyone.”

As high school approached, Danette hoped to attend a school with a good basketball program. But her parents had other plans. They sent her to Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, a selective magnet school in Northwest that regularly shows up on lists of the country’s best public high schools. To Danette’s dismay, Banneker had only intramural sports teams.

Instead of scoring baskets, Danette thrived in the humanities, writing poems and short stories that won praise from her teachers. She became the executive editor of a city-funded youth newspaper and wrote an essay in her junior year that helped earn her a month-long trip to Israel.

Yet Danette never felt entirely at home at Banneker, which was rife with what she calls “inside-the-race racism.” While the vast majority of students at Banneker were also black, many were from Washington’s more affluent northern neighborhoods. Kids like herself, from poor and working-class sections of the city’s southern and eastern quadrants, she says, often stood apart socially. “It was my first experience of being discriminated against by black people,” Danette says. “They called us ‘hood rats, hoodlums. We were labeled and told that nothing smart comes out of Southeast — ‘The only smart black kids live in Northwest.’”

Being the outsider bred in her a fierce loyalty to Southeast — its neighborhoods, people and street culture — that Danette carries with her to this day. Even so, Danette acknowledges that it wasn’t always easy being a smart girl in Southeast. Many of her neighborhood friends attended the chronically troubled Frank W. Ballou Senior High School. “My Ballou friends would say things like, ‘Y’all are nerds,’” remembers Danette, who says she laughed off such taunts.

Erica Berry, who also attended Banneker, thinks Danette was always caught between two worlds: “She was really, really smart, but she didn’t want people to think she was, because it just wasn’t cool to be intelligent, especially in the neighborhood where she grew up. Everyone there would have thought she was trying to be better than them.”

Outside of school, Danette cultivated a street-savvy persona. Often she lied to her parents, saying that she was spending the night at a friend’s house when really she was out at all-night go-go parties.

Her cousin Glenn Toston once saw her at such a party and was shocked: “She didn’t strike me as the type that would want to go to something like that . . . She was pretty much a brainiac, always into the books, you know; school was it for her.”

When she was a senior, Danette and three classmates visited Vassar at the suggestion of a guidance counselor and were hosted at the Poughkeepsie, N.Y., college by a Banneker alumna. “The old buildings, cathedral-like ceilings, people strolling across the lawn with sweat shirts and backpacks, it was this Norman Rockwell vision of college,” Danette recalls. “It was exactly what I imagined college should be like.”

She applied and was accepted. Yet Vassar was expensive, about $17,000 a year for tuition alone in 1988. Her financial aid package consisted mostly of loans. Her parents, she says, were willing to shoulder the debt, but she didn’t want to burden them. Plus, she didn’t want to leave Washington and move so far away from her family. She decided to go to Howard University, where the annual tuition was slightly less than $5,000.

She enrolled as a human development major and planned to minor in English, thinking she might want to be a journalist. But after two semesters, in a decision that she still regrets, she quit. She was tired of studying, she says. “I was burned out.”

She moved out of her parents’ house and into a Suitland apartment with a friend. She got a job as a secretary at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Suitland, earning $17,000 a year. And that’s when she began dating the “roughneck” who would become her husband.

They met one evening at Hains Point in East Potomac Park, a popular spot for hanging out. He was a high school dropout, but his stunning good looks, soft eyes and sharp features had a magnetic effect. Danette was, she admits, drawn to his “wild side,” which sometimes included carrying a pistol.

“I wish I had gone away to college,” she says now. “That way I never would have met him.”

Berry warned Danette that he was trouble. “He walked his own line,” Berry says. “He did what he wanted to do. He didn’t answer to anybody. And I think Danette liked that. And part of it, I wouldn’t be surprised, was that she thought, ‘This guy will drive my parents crazy.’”

Danette denies that: “You can call it rebelliousness, but I wasn’t trying to spite my parents. I was just being me.”

After work, she and her boyfriend would hang out in East Potomac Park, drinking beer and smoking weed. “To me it was cool,” she says. “I didn’t have any homework. I didn’t have to go to school . . . This was my cut-loose period.” Now she wishes she could have those years back, to undo all the bad choices she made.

“There was a light in her,” Berry says, “that was starting to die out.”

IT’S A WARM SUMMER MORNING IN COLUMBIA HEIGHTS, and Danette waits for water to boil in an egg-caked frying pan that sits on an electric hot plate. Washing the dishes seems to take forever, at least since the gas was cut off for nonpayment of a roughly $400 bill.

Danette says she doesn’t mind bathing in cold water, though her kids are less stoic. She’s been driving them to an aunt’s house for hot showers.

Danette checks the time. De’Vaughn and Imani are 10 minutes late for a summer camp being run out of a nearby police station. She orders the sleepy-eyed children to quickly brush their teeth and get dressed. “Come on, guys,” she says, slapping a bedroom door three times. “Let’s get going!”

De’Vaughn zombies out of the bathroom. He is lithe and athletic, though smaller than average for his age. He has a bushy head of hair that he’d love to cornrow, though his mother won’t allow it. “I didn’t grow up that way,” she tells him. “Boys cut their hair!”

With high cheekbones and big eyes, De’Vaughn is a good-looking kid. Just like his dad, Danette says. Not long ago, Danette discovered an erotic text message on the family cellphone that a girl had sent to De’Vaughn. Alarmed, she suspended his phone privileges. The thought of further similarities between De’Vaughn and his father, whom she and the kids haven’t seen in three years, scares Danette.

Keeping her son on the straight and narrow path is a top priority. “I try to keep him around positive influences, positive black men,” she says. De’Vaughn spends lots of time with Danette’s dad and her cousin Glenn, an electrician who has been teaching him to water ski.

De’Vaughn bolts out of the apartment, and Danette calls after him to wait for Imani, an affectionate mama’s girl with a gentle, innocent demeanor. She drapes her arms over Danette’s shoulders and watches as her mother writes a note giving her permission to attend a sex-ed class today at camp. “If you have any questions, ask Mommy tonight,” Danette tells her.

With the children gone, Danette tidies the apartment. On the windowsill above the kitchen sink, there’s a row of books, which are among the few possessions Danette doesn’t plan to pitch come moving day.

On this, her one day off from work at the grocery store, she’s going to look for a place to live. She gathers some folders related to her housing search and heads out to her 1986 Dodge Diplomat. Just as the engine thunders to life, Danette spots a young woman with a 10-speed bicycle and dyed jet-black hair coming down the steps of a nearby building.

“That’s my new neighbor,” she says. Danette has already asked about apartments in the building. “They wanted 12-hundred a month for little small one-bedrooms.” She shakes her head in disgust and steps on the gas.

WHEN DANETTE ARRIVED IN COLUMBIA HEIGHTS THREE YEARS AGO, housing prices were soaring even faster than elsewhere in the Washington region. Many properties had doubled in value within a few years. Longtime residents were moving away, cashing in gold mines of equity or being pushed out by rising rents. Younger and more affluent residents were arriving. On every block it seemed that stately Victorian rowhouses and apartment buildings were going condo.

This rapid gentrification hasn’t been limited to Columbia Heights. The entire city is hemorrhaging its least expensive places to live. In an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data last fall by the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, the think tank estimated that 7,500 units priced under $500 a month disappeared between 2000 and 2004. Earlier this year, a city-sponsored task force cited “critical housing problems created by the housing boom” and called for the preservation of 30,000 existing affordable units and the construction of an additional 55,000 over the next 14 years.

The loss of affordable housing has helped fuel an African American exodus to the suburbs, particularly to Prince George’s County, where Danette’s parents now live. They’ve given their daughter and grandchildren a standing invitation to stay at their home in Brandywine, a five-bedroom, corner-lot Colonial in a neighborhood where homes start at $500,000. Danette’s 23-year-old sister, Kennedra, a teacher who just graduated from McDaniel College, a private school northwest of Baltimore, lives there, too.

But Danette says she can’t imagine leaving Washington for the suburbs and detects a kind of cultural amnesia, of “folks forgetting where they’re from,” among those who have left. She still regards herself, first and foremost, as a girl born, bred and eternally of Southeast. The grooves of her home town — its political dramas, the clackety-clack of its go-go music, the Baptist church she has attended her whole life — are etched in her soul. “This is my city,” Danette declares. “I’m sorry. I’m not leaving.”

DANETTE’S INFATUATION WITH HER BOYFRIEND LASTED FOR YEARS: through an 18-month jail sentence he served for shooting another man in the arm; through Danette’s pregnancies with De’Vaughn and Imani; through Danette’s job as a production assistant for the “News-Hour With Jim Lehrer” on PBS.

Danette finally married him in 1996, when she was pregnant with Imani, though he’d been unfaithful and chronically unemployed. Honoring tradition played a big part in her decision. “I came from [a strong] family,” she says. “My parents had been married for 30 years. My grandparents were married for 50 years.”

But the marriage quickly frayed. When she threatened to leave him a little more than a year into the marriage, she says, he put a revolver to her head while De’Vaughn was in the room. “I never thought he put bullets in,” Danette says. “He would twirl the barrel of the gun and was like, ‘You’re not going to leave me.’ And I would always call his bluff, ‘Well, shoot me then.’” He would pull the trigger. Click.

She didn’t file domestic abuse charges, but she did defend herself. “He was hitting, but I was fighting back,” she says. “We rumbled.”

His threats weren’t the only reason she stayed. “I didn’t want my family to fail,” she says. “I felt that we should give it all that we had.”

Her job became her escape from the turmoil at home. Danette spent six years working as a “NewsHour” production assistant, which required long days on shoots with news crews. She was out of town for two weeks in 2000 to support coverage of the Republican and Democratic national conventions.

“She was very good at her job,” says Linda Winslow, executive producer of the “NewsHour.” “She was essentially helping us assemble the scripts and get them on the air. It’s a very detail-oriented and extremely stressful job.”

Danette was proud of what she did for a living. “In my marriage I felt like a failure, but at work . . . I was successful.” For a long time, she kept the ugly truth of her home life hidden from her colleagues.

In 2001, Danette finally called the marriage quits, after her husband, whose driver’s license had been suspended, wrecked their recently purchased used car. By then he had already moved out of their apartment in Capitol Heights, and Danette had left the “NewsHour” for a less time-consuming job as a communications associate at a nonprofit.

“I was sorry to see her go,” recalls Winslow. “She struggled mightily to be there at all times. But there were times when it was a struggle she was losing, because she was on her own, and she had to get her kids.”

Almost as soon as she filed for divorce, Danette says, “everything went to hell.” First, doctors found benign tumors on her uterus, which needed to be removed. Just before the surgery, she was evicted from her apartment. And by the time she recovered six weeks later, she no longer had a job. She filed for unemployment and became a nomad, living with her parents, then her cousin Glenn, then a friend, then back with her parents.

“It was a big adjustment for the kids,” Danette says. They had trouble sleeping and frequently fought with each other. “Ike and Tina,” Danette sometimes called them.

The toll of the instability was most apparent in De’Vaughn. He would lapse into what Danette calls “shut-down mode. He would go to school, but not say a thing. He’d come home from school, wouldn’t want to be bothered, just sit in front of the TV.” At school, he was diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder. Danette thought he was depressed, which she traced to the divorce.

“You said you were going to keep praying for Daddy,” De’Vaughn once told her angrily. “You promised you weren’t going to give up on him.”

“For a long time,” Danette says, “my son was his father’s biggest champion.”

As they wandered from one temporary home to another, Danette tried to keep her children’s lives as normal as possible. She made sure De’Vaughn played football. She coached Imani’s cheerleading squad. They went to church on Sundays.

For 18 months, the duration of her unemployment benefits, she says that she searched unsuccessfully for jobs in the media. Having no college degree was a hurdle.

When her unemployment benefits expired in the summer of 2003, she got her first welfare check. “At first it bothered me, going on the system, but I knew that I had worked. I paid into the system, and now I needed it. I felt bad for maybe a week. Then I didn’t. I had hungry kids.”

While she was on welfare, she didn’t always report her full income from an assortment of temporary jobs to the welfare office, as required. To keep afloat, she says, she broke the law in other ways, sometimes buying food stamps at a steep discount from a drug-addicted woman in the neighborhood.

“I’m no angel,” she says. But she doesn’t feel guilty for doing what was necessary to feed her children. “It’s about survival.”

A few months after she went on welfare, she picked up a flier at the housing authority about a program called Hope and a Home, a nonprofit that offers temporary below-market rate housing in Columbia Heights to low-income families trying to get on their feet. Mary Jo Schumacher, a case worker at Hope and a Home, remembers interviewing Danette: “She was pretty open about her situation with her husband. It had just torn her family down . . . I remember tears as she talked about it all.”

Schumacher and other Hope and a Home staff briefly debated Danette’s need for the three-year program. She was unlike the typical applicant, having graduated from an elite high school, attended college, however briefly, and worked in a professional setting. Did someone like Danette really need help?

They decided she did: Hope and a Home offered the family a three-year lease on a duplex on 10th Street NW, which Danette gratefully signed.

Seven other Hope and a Home families, overwhelmingly single mothers and their children, also lived on 10th Street NW. Some of the women were battling drug addiction; others had never passed the ninth grade or were fleeing domestic abuse. Danette was quick to reach out to her new neighbors. “Danette has some real leadership qualities,” says Schumacher, “and some real ways of gathering people around her.”

In particular, Da-nette befriended one mother, a recovering drug user, whose 12-year-old son often visited the duplex to play with De’Vaughn and Imani. Danette frequently fed the boy and let him stay overnight. She says she sometimes wondered if he was getting enough to eat at home and would call his mother to give her subtle reminders to feed him.

But it didn’t take long for Danette to grow disenchanted with Hope and a Home. The program required its tenants to meet regularly with a case worker and attend monthly workshops on subjects such as parenting and personal finance. Danette quickly chafed under the rules she’d agreed to live by, saying it felt like outsiders were trying to manage her life. When a case worker suggested that De’Vaughn go on medication for his ADD, Danette scoffed and defiantly posted his honor roll certificate on the refrigerator.

Danette’s attendance at Hope and a Home’s monthly meetings grew sporadic, particularly after she started working at Giant in June 2005. The meetings, she says, interfered with her work schedule. Schumacher says the vast majority of Hope and a Home tenants attend the meetings, which are scheduled a year in advance, giving tenants plenty of time to prevent work-related conflicts.

Danette also began defaulting on rent soon after moving into the 10th Street duplex. She says her income simply wasn’t large enough to cover the rent and all her other bills: groceries, car insurance, gas, utilities. Hope and a Home sent a notice of eviction. Danette found a pro bono attorney who persuaded a judge to erase her debt and reduce her rent even further. In exchange, Danette agreed to leave the duplex by August 31, 2006, more than three months before the end of her original lease.

Most tenants pay their rent on time, Schumacher says. Danette should have been able to, as well. “To be truthful, I don’t know why she had such difficulty managing her money. There are people in our program who are about her income range who would pay rent on time every singe month.”

Danette says she could never make it work: “My outflow, no matter what, was always greater than my income.”


Absent power steering, Danette heaves on the wheel of her Dodge. The titanic sedan was a gift from her dad last June. He gave it to her on Father’s Day, an irony that still makes Danette shake her head. He should be the one getting gifts, she says, wishing that she depended less on the generosity of her parents. “I’m 36 years old!” she declares.

The Dodge careens up and around a curve in the parking garage and docks at a space above the Giant supermarket in Columbia Heights. The Giant is one of the fruits of this neighborhood’s gentrification, rising from ground that formerly hosted an abandoned theater and an ill-tended community garden. Danette monitored the progress of the supermarket’s construction. “I just kept walking around there until I saw the hiring sign.”

She was offered a position as a cashier for $6.60 an hour. Despite the low starting wage, Danette saw upward mobility with Giant. After six months, she’d be eligible for benefits. She especially liked the company’s tuition reimbursement program: Getting a degree remains a goal. When a management training position opened up, she was accepted.

Today she’s here to collect her weekly paycheck. Inside the store, she makes her way toward the manager’s station, greeting co-workers.

“How you doin’, Missy?” Danette calls out.

“I need to get me a sandwich and get some sleep,” the woman huffs.

“I got to do the same thing,” Danette says. “But first I got to find me a spot” to live in. Her co-worker puffs her cheeks, a gesture of grim solidarity.

A manager hands Danette her paycheck for $366.18, representing 49.7 hours of work. “You look at your check and see $7.60 an hour — that hurts,” Danette says. “But soon I’ll have my 15,” the hourly wage she expects to earn after finishing her training to be an assistant manager. Already she’s doing some of a manager’s tasks: supervising cashiers, handling customer complaints, closing the store at night.

Danette asks for a $60 money order. It’s one of her final weekly rent payments on the Columbia Heights apartment. She walks down a store aisle, picking up a large bottle of Tylenol and some pre-packaged lunches for the kids. She hesitates and considers putting back the lunches, which the kids like but cost too much. She rarely shops at her workplace because the food is cheaper at a discount store on Georgia Avenue, a few blocks away. She decides to get the lunches “because it’s payday, and the kids don’t ask me for much.” During the week, the kids get free or reduced lunch at day camp and school.

At the checkout, she chats up the cashier, who glances at Danette’s big bottle of pain pills. Danette has been eating the pills a lot recently to battle splitting, stress-induced headaches.

“You gonna put a hole in your stomach,” the cashier warns.

“Oh, no, not me,” replies Danette, who had earlier joked that “me and pain, we got an understanding.”

The bill comes to $16.49. Add in the $60 for rent and the $20 that she’ll soon spend on gasoline, cigarettes, a lighter and a bottle of soda. The result: One hour into the new fiscal week, she’s out 25 percent of her weekly pay.

MOVING DAY IS ONE MONTH AWAY, and a Section 8 voucher has not materialized. Danette’s hands are shaking, and she’s uncharacteristically quiet. Yesterday she was suspended from work, indefinitely without pay. “I wasn’t ready for this monkey wrench,” she says. “I can’t afford not to be working.”

The violation happened two days ago. She was on the late shift, closing up for the night, and her duties included putting cash receipts into the store’s safe. After dropping the money, she attested to the deposit by initialing a paper form. She then scribbled the initials of a co-worker who was elsewhere in the store, doing other closing work.

Forging the initials of a second witness is common, Danette says, a way to save time at the end of the day. She has watched other managers do it, she says, and insists she didn’t know it is a violation of company policy.

It is. And now, although there is no allegation of missing money, she can’t return to work until an investigation is complete. A spokesman for Giant declined to comment.

This morning, Danette told Imani and De’Vaughn about her suspension.

“What are we going to do?” De’Vaughn demanded.

“Mommy, are you okay?” Imani asked, hugging her mother.

“We’ll be fine,” Danette says she assured them. “Doesn’t God always take care of us?”

After the children head off to summer camp, Danette calls a union steward and describes her suspension from the grocery store. The timing is awful, she explains. “I’m about to be homeless.”

“We’ll get you back to work as soon as possible,” the union man promises.

But the monkey wrench is already cascading. The temporary tag on her Dodge expires in two days. New plates and registration will cost $236. She says that she has the cash, just barely. Yet with no promise of a paycheck next week, the expense seems unwise. On the other hand, if she’s caught driving with expired tags, she could face a world of trouble.

Her cellphone rings. It’s one of the counselors from the kids’ summer camp. De’Vaughn has been mouthing off all morning, and now he’s being sent home.

“Thank you for calling,” Danette says to the officer, promising stern discipline. After hanging up, she exhales and says, “When it rains, it pours.”

DANETTE IS DESPERATE. She dials an old work friend, an executive assistant at McNeil/Lehrer Productions, and asks, “Do you have anything?”

Her friend’s response stuns her: The company needs an executive assistant, starting salary $35,000 a year, with benefits. When can you come in for an interview?

Four days later, wearing a borrowed blue suit and holding a newly updated résumé, Danette drives to Arlington. The tags on her car have expired, but she doesn’t get pulled over.

She interviews with five people at McNeil/Lehrer, including Lester Crystal, the president of the company, who asks if she is really prepared to come back. He doesn’t know all the details, but he’s aware that there has been drama in her life. “I felt confident that she’d be able to judge her own capacity to handle the workload,” he says later. Danette assures him that she can take on the job as an assistant to Crystal and two other executives.

Two days later, she gets a call from the director of human resources. The job is hers. “Frankly, we’re delighted to have her back,” Crystal says. “She’s an exuberant worker with limitless energy. She’s a part of this family.”

Danette isn’t sure whether to laugh, cry or fall to her knees in prayer. It is, she believes, a moment of divine intervention. “See you at work on Monday,” she says before hanging up. She runs around the apartment, shouting with uncontrollable joy. That night, she and the kids celebrate by eating at a nearby carryout. Order whatever you want, she tells them.

WITH MOVING DAY JUST AROUND THE CORNER, Danette returns from work to the Columbia Heights duplex in a beige suit. There is newfound serenity in her voice. She says that her headaches have been less vicious, and she loves her new job. Her income has doubled to about $3,000 per month; plus, there’s paid vacation, a retirement plan and health insurance.

“It makes me reevaluate everything,” she says, including her willingness to wait for a Section 8 voucher.

Across a glass dining table, she spreads floor plans for a three-bedroom apartment at Royal Courts, a two-year-old apartment complex in Southeast near Bolling Air Force Base. The rent is $1,125 per month, plus utilities.

This is beyond her new threshold of affordability, about $900. Yet Danette figures she could find a way to swing the payments. There’s one problem. Royal Courts doesn’t have any vacancies.

THE MOVE COMES AND GOES WITH LITTLE CEREMONY. Clothes are heaped into black plastic trash bags and crammed into the trunk of the Dodge, which finally has permanent tags. De’Vaughn and Imani drag old mattresses out of the Columbia Heights duplex, leaving them on the curb for the trash collectors, next to their mother’s rickety metal bookshelves and a dresser with one missing drawer.

De’Vaughn is still wearing his football jersey. The first game of his Pop Warner youth football season was today. His team, the Junior Midjets, lost, and he looks exhausted. So does Danette, though not because the move is a traumatic event. Even after 2 1/2 years, the duplex never felt like home, Danette says. It’s just late, almost 11 p.m. The move is taking place at this hour because bulk trash can’t be set outside until nighttime.

The Dodge pulls away for the last time. Danette drives across town to the home of cousin Glenn, who lives near RFK Stadium. A few days ago, Danette cleaned up the small spare bedroom where she and the kids will be staying.

Glenn says he is more than happy to help out — Danette is like a little sister. He tells her not to pay him rent, though one day he finds a roll of five $20 bills stuffed in one of his pockets. The impositions are minor, Glenn says, like having to watch his language around the kids. Really, he’s just sorry that his house is in the chaotic midst of being remodeled. Power tools, buckets and a few car parts cluttered the spare bedroom. Danette shifts them to make room for the garbage bags of clothes. She spreads clean sheets across the double bed the three of them will be sharing.

But on their first night at Glenn’s, De’Vaughn decides that he won’t tolerate sharing a bed with his sister and mother. He moves downstairs to the living room and builds himself a campsite — made of pillows, blankets and a sleeping bag — in front of the big-screen TV.

“This is too crowded,” Danette says later. “But at least we haven’t gone to a shelter.”

RAIN BEGINS TO FALL, and Danette scans the edges of the practice fields where dozens of adolescent footballers are tumbling in the mud. A moment earlier, Imani was here beside her mother, watching De’Vaughn and his teammates practice. Now, the 9-year-old has vanished.

“She knows better than to wander off,” Danette says. She walks the perimeter of the floodlit field, calling out into the darkened city streets. “Imani? Imani!” Her plaintive voice is drowned out by the crack of helmets and the screeching of whistles.

Danette and the kids have been living at Glenn’s for two weeks. Danette has enrolled the children in nearby schools on Capitol Hill. Imani is loving fourth grade at Watkins Elementary, where an active parent group sponsors a spring field trip to the Grand Canyon. The cost per student: $1,500. Danette warns Imani not to get her hopes up — there’s no way she can afford to send her. De’Vaughn is going to eighth grade at Hine Junior High School. He doesn’t like it, says Danette, because he doesn’t know any of his classmates. Life is cramped at Glenn’s. When are we moving? the kids keep asking. They’re fighting a ton, Danette reports. There’s only one working bathroom in the house. It’s in the basement on the far side of Glenn’s bedroom. So when he has a girlfriend over, the toilet becomes off-limits. In emergencies, there’s a bucket in the kitchen.

Imani worries that they’ll have to live at Glenn’s house for months. Danette assures her they won’t be there much longer. She’s found an advertisement in the newspaper for a three-bedroom apartment on W Street SE, renting for $995 with utilities included. She visited the place and was impressed with the skylights, new carpeting and remodeled kitchen. She was not so happy with W Street itself, which dead-ends at the wooded edge of Fort Stanton Park.

“It’s a little too high up in the cut,” she says, using a slang expression for the streets in Southeast that climb up hillsides and abruptly end. These places are protected from through-traffic, making convenient dens for drug dealing and its attendant violence.

When she drives De’Vaughn and Imani past the building, they spot police frisking young men on a nearby sidewalk, and later she learns about the murder of a 14-year-old boy who in late September was shot in the back on 13th Place SE, another dead-end street. She sits her children down to discuss the crime and to review a survival strategy: If you hear gunshots, don’t run; dive under a parked car.

The kids nod matter-of-factly. This isn’t the first time Danette has delivered this streetwise lecture. “It went in one ear and out the other,” Imani says later.

Still, the prospect of moving to W Street unnerves Danette. “That’s a fact of life, and that’s what single parents go through when trying to find affordable housing,” she writes in an e-mail. “If I get the [W Street] apartment, how do I plan to keep my kids safe?”

After several frantic minutes looking for her daughter, Danette finds Imani doing homework in the computer lab of the elementary school next to the field where De’Vaughn is practicing. Danette’s relief morphs into a flash of anger, and Imani looks both sheepish and perplexed. Danette’s tone quickly softens once she realizes Imani is safe. All that’s left are Danette’s conflicting impulses: She loves her children, and she loves her city. The only certainty is that she won’t abandon either.

“HERE WE GO AGAIN,” DANETTE SAYS. She tosses a black trash bag filled with clothes down the stairs of Glenn’s house. “This is the last time.”

It’s a Friday morning in mid-October. De’Vaughn and Imani begged their mom to let them stay home from school because they wanted to help her move into the W Street apartment. Not a chance, she said.

Last week, Danette put down nearly $2,000 to secure the apartment. About half of the money was a gift from her parents, though her dad warns her that he doesn’t think the neighborhood is safe. Danette tells him the block isn’t as bad as it used to be and that life at Glenn’s is wearing thin.

Danette stops by the rental office to sign the lease and pick up a set of keys. “This is the only place I could find for under $1,000,” she says.

The leasing agent reviews the house rules: No loitering in common areas; no doormats in the hallway; no long-term guests. She adds that monthly extermination services are free. Danette’s expression corkscrews: “Do they have rodents?!”

“So many abandoned buildings in the neighborhood are being torn down. This causes lots of mice” to search for new homes, says the leasing agent, avoiding any mention of larger rodents.

Southeast is undergoing a gradual renaissance. Near Danette’s new home, a long-moribund strip mall is scheduled for a $130 million redevelopment. And, until recently, the apartment building on W Street was abandoned. It was rehabbed into 17 rental units two years ago by a nonprofit community development corporation with assistance from the city and federal governments. In exchange for the subsidies, the developer agreed to allow only tenants with moderate incomes to move in. The same developer is building loft condominiums in Columbia Heights that start at $400,000.

Later in the afternoon, Danette drives to Capitol Hill to pick up her children from school. Imani and De’Vaughn have seen the exterior of the W Street building, but they’ve never been in the apartment. From now on, however, they’ll be spending lots of time indoors; Danette rules that the kids can’t play outside unless she’s there.

“Up the steps,” Danette commands. Imani races up and pauses on the second floor. “Up again,” says Danette.

Winding through a narrow cinder-block hallway, De’Vaughn turns to his mom. “You said it was apartment N?”

“No, it’s M,” says Danette. She rattles the newly cut key and finally throws open the door. The walls are gleaming, freshly painted. The air is redolent of new carpeting. Labels from the manufacturer still cling to some windows.

Imani admires the spiral staircase leading up to Danette’s second-level bedroom. In the kitchen, she opens cabinet doors, flicks on the disposal and tests the faucet. “Everything’s new,” she says, laughing.

“That’s your room,” Danette says to De’Vaughn, pointing to a doorway across the spacious, empty living room. He steps into his bedroom, lies down on the brown carpet. He closes his eyes and spreads his arms and legs, as if making an angel in the snow.