Tyonna isn’t sad; she’s angry.
At 17, she not only understands what Section 8 housing means; she knows what it looks and smells like. She and her brothers, Anthony and Brandon, grew up splitting time between rundown apartments in DC and their grandparents’ home in Fort Washington. Their mother, Cynthia, wasn’t able to hold down a job because of her drug habit. Instead, she’d find men willing to support her.
Tyonna is the middle child—Anthony is two years older, Brandon a year younger—but even as a child she saw herself as a mother figure. When they had food in the house, Tyonna would cook for her brothers. When they didn’t, she’d go looking for some, knocking on neighbors’ doors and asking for anything they could spare. She refused to accept money—“I knew right where it would go if my mom found it,” she says—but if things got desperate, Anthony would shake down one of the neighborhood kids and take his pocket change.
Tyonna never really knew her father, also named Anthony, but she has flashes of memories, sometimes in nightmares. She says he used to beat her mother within an inch of her life. Ella Simmons, Tyonna’s grandmother, remembers one time when he smashed a window, sending broken glass flying across the apartment. Baby Brandon was asleep in a bassinet nearby. When Simmons arrived later, she found her grandson covered in shards of glass.
After the children’s father left, Cynthia and her kids bounced between seedy apartments and homeless shelters. The cycle was always the same: A welfare check would arrive and they’d move to their own place for a few weeks. Then Cynthia would blow the rest on drugs and they’d be evicted. Cynthia thought it was funny to give her young daughter booze.
For much of her childhood, Tyonna didn’t know that the “other DC” existed—the Capitol, K Street, Georgetown. Photographs of downtown DC confused her.
Tyonna was six when she finally saw the White House. Cynthia and her kids were staying at a homeless shelter, and one morning she suggested having a mother/daughter day. “Those were the magic words,” Tyonna says. She was elated.
Cynthia and her daughter rode a bus around the city. From the window, Tyonna took in views of the “nice DC,” as she calls it, cataloging everything to tell her brothers. They ate burgers at McDonald’s for lunch.
That night, Tyonna fell asleep on a cot with her mother’s arms wrapped around her. When she woke up, Cynthia was gone. Assuming their mom had gone out to look for some food, the kids waited. It was six months before they saw or heard from Cynthia again.
Next: "It was like I had this addiction to basketball."