Dominisha and her daughter became homeless in May,
after an employer didn’t pay her
for a month’s work.
A mini-dynamo, Dominisha Walker stands 5 feet 1 inch tall and is always on the move. And for the past six months, she has stayed working, even though she hasn’t had a home or childcare for her daughter.
“I always have a job. I like to be independent,” says Dominisha, 25.
The epitome of an essential worker, Dominisha worked overtime during the pandemic, cleaning hotel rooms, working on an oil refinery’s janitorial crew, and clocking in for night shifts at a local college that was sanitizing dorms and classrooms in preparation for students returning to campus. Sometimes she picked up open shifts at local hotels or restaurants through a temp-agency app on her cell phone.
Whatever she does, one person is watching closely : D’amyri, her daughter, who is 5 years old and small for her age. People always tell D’amyri that she is old in spirit. Like her mother, she is a quiet thinker with an intent gaze. She doesn’t miss a thing.
Though her mom has tried to shield her from their day-to-day struggles, D’amyri knows that her clothes are in a garbage bag in her mom’s car and that most of her toys have been in a storage unit for the past six months. She clings to her small white-and-pink plush unicorn backpack, which holds a few bottles of sparkly nail polish and bright lip gloss — prized possessions that used to sit near the edge of her own bed.
The little family’s path to eviction started in March, when a temp agency sent Dominisha to a new workplace. She worked about 100 hours cleaning, filling in extra shifts as the pandemic began and other workers began staying home. But when payday came, the temp agency told her that there had been a problem with the employer. They would not be able to pay her the $905 she was owed, they said.
D’amyri, showing the sparkly fingernail polish she keeps in her unicorn backpack.
Dominisha texted and called, without success. When her rent, $471, came due in April, she showed the correspondence to her apartment manager, promising to get caught up as soon as she could.
She made a little headway, but with the late fees added every 10 days, she was still behind in May, as her lease was up for renewal. So her landlords didn’t go before an eviction judge: they just declined to sign a new lease.
Ty Richards, Dominisha’s outreach worker at UNITY of Greater New Orleans, says that they have often seen tenants quietly pushed out of housing through lease non-renewals during the pandemic, despite governmental orders banning evictions.
They had no family house to retreat to, because Dominisha’s mother had died of cancer several years ago. So, at the end of May, Dominisha piled all of their possessions into a storage unit. For the next four months, they slept on $9 air mattresses on a friend’s floor, in a two-bedroom house with five other people. Dominisha continued to work, while an older woman who lived in the house cared for her daughter.
But tension started to build within the crowded house. Her daughter’s phone disappeared, along with other possessions and food from the refrigerator.
Then, in September, someone in the crowded house started to routinely puncture their mattresses. Feeling a sense of impending danger, Dominisha began living out of her car.
At night, as she worked to clean one floor at the college each night, she set up D’amryi on a sofa on the same empty floor, coloring or sleeping. On her nights off, they’d sleep in her car by a park, with D’amryi stretched out across the back and her mother reclined in the driver’s seat.
Dominisha called UNITY to speak with outreach worker Ty Richards. Richards scrambled. “I could feel it was urgent,” she said.
Dominisha knew her cries were heard. “Everybody needs somebody. And Ty was that somebody for me,” she said.
A few weeks ago, Richards found a space for them at the Salvation Army shelter Uptown. Richards believes that she now can move them to their own apartment through a program called Rapid Rehousing, which provides temporary help to homeless families.
Dominisha and D’amryi (with her unicorn) and Ty Richards, who helped to get them housed.
“Everybody needs somebody. Ty was that somebody for me,” Dominisha said.
Dominisha has paid her own rent since D’amryi was born. So she knows that her work can sustain her rent, as long as she is being paid properly.
Last week, she stopped by the UNITY office to do some paperwork with Richards. D’amryi, sat quietly nearby, pulling down her blue medical mask once to apply a layer of sparkly lip gloss. Dominisha watched with a smile.
Dominisha has not cried, nor shown her distress to her daughter. But she knows she can’t bottle up her emotions forever. So once they are in their new apartment, she hopes to put D’amryi on the bus to school and let it out. “I need to scream and cry a little,” she said. “I feel like it would clear my mind. And I can do that once I’m in my home. It will be my sanctuary,” she said.
This year, we know how homes can be a life-saving sanctuary, a place to stay safe during a pandemic and a place where little girls can sleep with their unicorn backpacks within reach.
This holiday season, will you help make sure that the UNITY coalition can respond to any parent who calls us in need?
Please support Home for the Holidays, the largest New Orleans effort ever to house those who have lost their housing: vulnerable low-income workers, frail neighbors and fragile families. The UNITY coalition hopes to house about 700 households in their own apartments before the New Year, as part of an historic initiative to reduce street homelessness to the lowest numbers in two decades, despite widespread unemployment and economic stresses.
You can imagine what it takes to get that many people settled into apartments. But the UNITY coalition sets its goals based on the need we’re seeing in the New Orleans area. That need feels even more urgent as viral numbers rise across the country.
We know that our goals are ambitious. But, after Hurricane Katrina, with your help, we met ambitious goals again and again. Our outreach efforts became a national model for other cities. If you are able, please help us: we are ready to use our hard-won Katrina experience to once again house our neighbors, through this groundbreaking Home for the Holidays initiative.
Thank you very much.
Martha J. Kegel
P.S. Please give what you can, to ensure that the most vulnerable children and adults in our community are cared for. We are deeply grateful for your compassion and generosity.