Emery requires residents to call at least four landlords a month to inquire about housing. Merritt had aimed high. With the money he was putting in escrow and maybe a second job and a loan, he thought he might have enough to buy a small house somewhere, even in the suburbs. He spent a whole day at a homebuyer’s conference at the Washington Convention Center, learning about credit ratings, mortgages, and down payments.
But as time passed, he grew dejected. I joined Merritt at one of his monthly meetings with Emery’s housing specialist, Herbert Baylor. When I arrived, the two were scrolling through listings on RentToOwn.org. On the wall behind Baylor’s desk was a worn poster of a locomotive turning a corner in the woods, puffing steam. “Initiative,” it read. “Nothing can stop the power of persistence.”
All the listings in DC—at least those west of the Anacostia River—were out of reach.
“Should I pick another city?” Baylor asked.
“I don’t want to go that far,” Merritt said. “What about Montgomery County? Aspen Hill?” It was where he’d lived while married and working at Bob’s Big Boy, and where his stepdaughter and her kids now had a home.
Baylor looked skeptical. He pulled up the listings: Homes for sale there ran from $400,000 to $599,000. Even Baylor looked surprised: “This is crazy.”
He then found a four-bedroom rental in Beltsville for $800 a month.
“Let’s print that one out,” Merritt said.
But as he read the fine print, light drained from his face: The $800 covered one room. The other three would be occupied by other tenants and the owner.
“Oh, hell, no,” Merritt said. He was in his fifties. He wanted privacy and quiet, not a frat house.
Baylor told me no Emery House resident had gone directly from the shelter to homeownership. It was a leap for which none had the finances. But the staff didn’t want to pour water on Merritt’s dream. They understood why a man who had held a full-time job for three decades—even one whose life had its share of stumbles—might want a place to call his own.
When I told Jenny Reed, of the DC Fiscal Policy Institute, about Merritt, she said that cases like his had become “very common.” The District’s rebirth—from murder capital to hipster haven, as the city’s promoters would have it—has thrown its inequalities into sharp relief, or, more often, papered over them.
According to government statistics Reed showed me, the top two jobs held by DC residents—by employment total—are lawyers and other legal professionals (annual median wage $153,640) and various kinds of managers ($126,240). Third and fourth in number—but far distant in pay—are the people who answer their phones and clean their buildings: administrative assistants ($50,575) and janitors ($24,160).
Merritt’s pay last year—$29,167 before taxes—is more than twice the federal poverty line for a single person. But what that buys in DC is ever-shrinking.
“There are guys 50 to 60 years old living in a [single] room,” says Karen Douglas, a veteran social worker who is the clinical supervisor at Emery House. “Nobody thought, ‘At 60 I’m going to retire and I’m going to be in a room, just me and enough space to turn around in.’ ”
The men at Emery House, Douglas says, look with mixed feelings at the rehabbed homes—fresh paint, newly landscaped yards—that shimmer between the peeling places where their grandparents once lived. “You know you will never be in a position to move your kids into a home like that, never have a place big enough to have a Thanksgiving dinner in the neighborhood you grew up in,” she says.
So they ask themselves, “What am I working for? How do I keep hope up?”
• • •
Merritt’s friends and relatives worried that the stress of returning to the shelter would trigger a relapse. But they underestimated his resolve. One weekend, he drove me to the square brick apartment building on South Capitol Street where he had lived in the darkest days of his addiction. We stopped in the driveway.
I asked how he felt, seeing the building again. “It’s over,” he said. “I don’t forget. But I don’t want to go back.”
The problem was no longer his addiction; it was his recovery. He had assumed that if he stayed sober, his fortunes would follow an upward course.
As winter turned to spring, Merritt realized that his optimism had blinded him to certain hard truths: “I was trying to please everybody in my life—please my son, please my daughter—and trying to make them happy. I was trying to buy their love.”
His friends and the caseworkers at Emery told him that no amount of money could buy back those lost years. He had to take care of himself first. He had to pay his rent on time and learn to budget. His example—of hard work, responsibility, and adversity soldiered through—would be the best gift he could offer his children.
• • •
At the end of February, Xavier Parker and the counseling team at Emery summoned Merritt to a meeting: His time was up. They had already granted him one two-month extension; they couldn’t approve his request for a second. Merritt had wanted more time to build savings and move closer to his dream of homeownership.
But the staff at Emery felt that another extension risked breeding dependence. Unlike most of the other residents, Merritt had a full-time job with benefits. What he needed more than anything, they felt, was to learn self-sufficiency and align his dreams with his income.
A few days later, he approached Douglas in the hall and thanked her. “He asked me, ‘Would it be okay if I gave you a hug?’ ” she recalls.
When I next saw Merritt, I asked what precisely he’d thanked Douglas for.
“Tough love,” he said.
• • •
Within two days, Merritt had found a listing in the Express: a room for $525 a month, near the Benning Road Metro. He had spoken to the landlord and was about to drive to see it when Douglas called with another lead. A friend of a friend—a retired gentleman in his sixties—had recently remodeled his house on West Virginia Avenue in Northeast DC and had a furnished second-floor room to rent for $550.
The man lived in the basement and was planning to lease two other upstairs rooms. When those tenants moved in, Merritt would have to share the second-floor bathroom and kitchen. It was a far cry from a home of his own, but it was clean, the furniture looked solid and new, and it was an easy drive to family, church, and work. He signed the paperwork the next day.
The following afternoon, a Saturday, he double-parked outside a red-brick rowhouse and I helped him carry in the last of his belongings. His room looked freshly painted, with bright-yellow walls, a large wooden dresser, and a cable-ready TV. Two big windows overlooked grassy athletic fields and a children’s playground at Gallaudet University.
We went back down to the truck, and Merritt took out two plastic bags of groceries, heavy with fruits and vegetables. He was ready to cook his own food again and to return, he hoped, to a healthier weight.
When we finished unloading, it was late afternoon. Merritt looked exhausted. He had gotten up at Emery at 3:30 that morning, anxious about the days ahead. Before we met, he had washed every last stitch of laundry, gotten a haircut, changed the oil in his truck, and stopped at a Big Lots for a comforter and queen-size sheets for his bed. “A new start,” he said.
We got back into his truck and drove away on another errand. “I still want that house,” he told me. “But you know, you got to crawl before you can walk.”
Contributing editor Ariel Sabar is the author of two books, including My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for His Family’s Past. His website is arielsabar.com.
This article appears in the September 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.