The Comfort of Home
Her Underground Years Behind Her, a Woman Begins a Challenging New Life
By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 19, 2008; C01
Not that long ago nor that far away, she was the woman who slept beneath the street in a tunnel, lying on a bed of cardboard boxes.
Inside an underground commuter walkway leading to the Bethesda Metro station, she constructed a bedroom of thin paper walls. As people passed in a hush of hurry, she slept, unbothered that strangers were walking through her paper bedroom.
When she was awake, you stood outside the cardboard wall, as if talking across a neighbor's fence. And she talked with you about the worried state of the world. And you encouraged her to get up, come out of the tunnel. Whispering to her to climb into the daylight, up the steps from depression. Encouraging her to put on a pretty dress and lipstick and join the world bustling above her.
After a while, you walked away, discouraged by the circumstance. Thinking perhaps the situation was futile, that Virginia Skinner, 57, would never leave her tunnel. Thinking it vain to try to pull a homeless person off the streets when she did not want to go. Thinking people are responsible for their own lives. Adults can be pulled and pushed only so much. The will is that strong. Who are we to try to interfere with someone's will? That's why so many people drop a quarter in a can and keep going.
Nine months later, you receive a call. A happy voice: "This is Virginia! Do you remember me? I have my own place. I moved out of the tunnel. October 15. . . . Yes, I have an apartment. . . . I'm talking from my wall phone. . . . Yes. . . . Come on over!"
Virginia Skinner, who had lived in the tunnel on and off for about 12 years, refusing her family's entreaties to come into their homes, is now in an apartment, moving into another chapter in the story of human kindness, revealing lessons to be learned about hope. You realize that when you walked away from the tunnel, others who wished to help her kept watch, clinging to a stronger belief that the woman who lived in the tunnel would one day leave it.
'It Was Getting Cold'
"Hello! It's easier if you come around back!" Virginia beckons from the back door of her garden apartment in Silver Spring, next to a valley of trees. A cold wind blows. But there is a difference between this cold and the cold in the tunnel. Virginia does not shiver in this cold. She steps inside. She closes the door against the wind.
There is a decorated Christmas tree against the wall near the back door. The multitude of crates and bags that she kept in the tunnel are lined neatly against the walls. Virginia's rent is paid partly by a program called Home First, which receives funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Virginia pays 30 percent of her Supplemental Security Income toward her rent.
"All this stuff I had in the tunnel. Remember? When you are homeless, you don't stop buying things for your home," says Virginia. Her face, having emerged from the tunnel, shines. She shows off potholders she made, the shirt she stitched without a pattern, the wreath she twisted with gold. She has attached strings to the ceiling from which dangle six Christmas cards.
Her fingernails are painted red and she has tied her head in a pink scarf. She talks about how the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless helped her. Put her name on the list for an apartment. And when her name came up, they helped move her and her things out of the tunnel. "It was getting cold," she says.
Inside, there are no more grocery carts tied with gray string. She has pulled a full-size mattress out of the bedroom into the living room. "I sleep better out here," she says. Her mattress is surrounded by her things from the tunnel and in a strange way, the living room resembles her homestead underground.
Virginia lists all the errands she must run, the furniture she must buy, the wait for sales, the bus routes, the dinner parties planned.
Transitions are never easy. Moves often are unsettling, packing and unpacking disturbing, as one tries to find places for things accumulated. Sometimes it is hard to sit still in a new place that is not quite home. Sometimes you can't sleep, wondering who possessed this place before. Who are the neighbors? Who is watching?
Virginia has taped shut the vertical blinds dangling from her windows, allowing no opening for outsiders to peek in. She is sure someone was inside her place when she stepped out.
"Somebody broke in already and stole a jar of cranberries," she says. "They took a gray blanket and my tape recorder." She used to record her thoughts on it. It was lying on the bed. She wants the management company to change the locks and put bars on the windows. "Then I will sleep better."
While making a new home, people often hold on to things from the past. Memories are constructed like bridges on which people traverse to and fro, from present to past, walking across the bridge into personal history to retrieve things. Like the crocheted blanket, the suitcase full of unfinished projects. Walking across the bridge of memory to visit the old house, just to see how it sits in the past. Taking two buses into the past to visit a tunnel where she once slept in a paper bedroom, because it had become more familiar than a bedroom with real walls.
The other day, Virginia went back to the tunnel -- just to take a nap. "I just felt more comfortable," she says. "I wound up sleeping there all night."
But she got up. And unlike before, she did not stay in the tunnel. She returned to the apartment. She has plans. Tomorrow, she will go shopping, go to the post office to get money orders to pay bills. See the dentist. She has to call her son in Arizona.
She leaves a message: "Hello, Damion, this is Mom. I tried to call before Christmas. I moved into an apartment. Call me. I love you."
She hangs up the phone. Virginia, the mother of five adult children, had refused repeated pleas over the years from her sister and children to move in with them. Her family said she suffered from schizophrenia, though Virginia denies it. "I haven't heard that," she says. Her sister says Virginia began living on the street after her life took a traumatic turn when her youngest daughter was a baby and was snatched from Virginia's grandmother's yard on Capitol Hill. The family says the baby's father took her. Virginia left her other children in search of the baby and spent years trying to find her, the family says. The girl, now in her 30s, was raised by relatives and eventually reunited with her siblings as an adult.
But Virginia doesn't want to talk about the search for that baby. Instead she talks about a new, imaginary baby she says she just had. (Social workers say she has told people over the past 12 years she was pregnant.) In her living room, there are two baby strollers and a crib. She says she told the management company she would be adding a name to the lease. "You know I have a baby. Yes, at some point the baby has to come stay with me," she says matter-of-factly.
Then she switches the subject.
"I've got to get one of those machines to clean the cabinets. A steam cleaner."
She has made curtains for the bathroom. "I have my things packed up neat," she says. "I plan to do one room at a time. Somebody is giving me a sofa."
She moves into the kitchen. Obsessed with cleanliness, in the kitchen she has lined bottles and bottles of cleaning fluids along the kitchen window -- Oxy Power, all-purpose cleaner, baking soda, Comet, Bon Ami, three bottles of bleach, Pine-Sol, Lysol spray. "I like to keep clean," she says.
On the stove, she lifts a lid from a pot in which she is boiling a mop head. "I'm sterilizing my mop." She shifts her weight at the stove like a busy chef. She lifts another lid of a boiling pot. "These are my socks."
In the oven, she is drying a purple scarf and cans of food in a casserole dish, and another pot of socks. The oven is on low. The heat, she says, is good for drying clothes. You are concerned about carbon monoxide and a fire. "Oh, don't worry. I have a carbon monoxide detector and I'm always here when the oven is on. I can just run right in here," Virginia says, standing in the kitchen.
She lifts the lid from another pot of boiling socks: "The next time you guys come over, you'll have to come over for a meal. I make really good crackers. And I make really good biscuits."
And as you stand in the kitchen doorway, Virginia appears to be her own kind of Martha Stewart, lucid one minute and boiling socks the next. Cleaning, cleaning, cleaning, rubbing industrial-strength cleaner on the edges of lucidity.
Deserving of Dignity
Who had faith that Virginia Skinner could be moved?
"The easy answer," says Sharan London, executive director of the Montgomery County Coalition for the Homeless, "is if you believe people deserve the dignity of a home, then you don't give up. You keep going. You keep going out where she is and meeting her and trying to convince her. Our staff just went into Bethesda and talked with her and met her and kept going back until she was ready and now we are thrilled to have her.
"The secret is the secret in all relationships: you just keep trying," London says. "You don't give up. A man went through detox 120 times. It sounds extraordinary but on the 121st time, he got sober and has been so for 25 years. Some people say don't ever give up. That is the answer for any outreach. At the core of all that is, people deserve a home."
A cadre of advocates for the homeless -- from the coalition, Bethesda Cares and Threshold Services -- worked with Virginia. Treating her with compassion. Giving her blankets. Food. Watching her stuff. Talking to her. Setting up appointments. Empathizing. Keeping promises.
Virginia had been on and off the streets for more than 12 years. She was considered a hard case.
Jennifer Blackwell, a coordinator for Home First, said that by the time Blackwell reached Virginia, Virginia's preference was to come in off the street. "We didn't have to convince her," Blackwell said. "She was willing." And with the move, people notice that Virginia is happier. "She is much more high-spirited," Blackwell said. "She doesn't seem as drained. . .
"The move is an adjustment. It is the keeping them housed that becomes a challenge. Our agency is so committed to keeping people off the street, we will support them."
Plans for the Day
Virginia is pushing a baby stroller down Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda. Instead of a baby, the stroller holds a blue suitcase. She is on the way to the dentist.
She passes Michael Casey, 54, who is holding a sign. "I'm still homeless," Casey said. When told of Virginia's move, Casey says, "God bless her. I thought with all that stuff she wouldn't budge." But Virginia fooled him.
And on down the avenue, she pushes her stroller, smiling, stopping to chat with people who knew her in the tunnel. Today, she is wearing a pink scarf, a bluejean dress, orange Nike shoes, shimmering eye shadow and pink lipstick. "It's wine, my favorite color."
She checks her day planner. Crosses the street. Enters the Chevy Chase dental office, where the receptionist, dental assistant and dentist greet her warmly. They recognize her from long ago.
She pushes her stroller from the waiting room into the back offices. "I don't want anybody going through my things." She stands for an unnerving X-ray. The dentist, Mehran Armani, a kind man, examines her. Tells her she has two broken teeth, prescribes antibiotics and schedules her for a follow-up appointment.
She leaves the office. Stands near the curb. Places money orders into white envelopes to mail her bills.
A strange, warm January wind blows. She smiles, a woman having emerged from a tunnel with hope.
She stops outside Miller's Furs and poses for a photo in front of five fur coats behind a glass display. "I want one of these," she says. "I already have the hat. I look good in fur."
She continues window shopping, pushing her babyless stroller, and stops at Willow Lane. The name of the street "reminds me of the Dolly Parton song." Then she sings in a beautiful voice, making up her own lyrics: " What's your mama's name, child? What's your mama's name, child? Did she ever tell you about a place called Willow Lane?"
She moves up the street and rests on a bench where she used to sleep. "This is where I used to stay before I went into the tunnel." The clock tower hits 3:31. And Virginia is ready to go home.
"I'm not going back in that tunnel." She smiles.