It was another Friday morning at Bread for the City and Ms. Shiloh Johnson sat in the lobby nursing her head. She asked me if we had found her housing yet and showed me the hospital bracelet wrapped tightly around her thin wrist. She explained that she had just been discharged from the emergency room at Howard University. It was the third time that week Ms. Johnson had been to the ER for a seizure that could have been prevented by taking her medicine each day. This is the case for many people who are homeless and struggle to maintain a healthy lifestyle when surviving becomes a way of life. Ms. Johnson’s life on the streets and in shelters had kept her from following a treatment regime that prevented her seizures and taken a toll on her health.
Ms. Shiloh Johnson is part of Bread for the City’s Case Management Representative Payee program, as well as a client in our medical clinic and our legal department. She had been struggling with her housing situation and started spending nights sleeping on the streets to avoid uninvited guests in her apartment and violent confrontations in the neighborhood. After an especially violent episode in November, Ms. Johnson finally chose to abandon her unit in hopes of escaping her old neighborhood. “Something’s gotta change,” Ms. Johnson declared and began to work with Bread for the City and her caseworker at Catholic Charities to maintain her housing voucher and find another apartment.
For the next six months, Ms. Johnson remained homeless, unable to return to her old apartment while waiting for DC Housing Authority to approve her voucher and a new lease. In the meantime, without anywhere to keep her belongings, she carried her precious few items (clothes, food and newspapers) in any bag she could find. Her things were constantly going missing due to theft or just forgetfulness, meaning she routinely visited other agencies to get new sets of clothes or more food. The constant movement and lack of stability made it hard for her to keep track of anything, especially her medication. As a result Ms. Johnson’s condition worsened. She started having multiple seizures a day, leaving her feeling dizzy, frail and weak for hours.
One day, Ms. Johnson came into our medical clinic for her medicine only to be told by the providers that she also had lice. As we helped Ms. Johnson access a shower and find clean clothes, she kept asking where the lice could have come from. Ms. Johnson expressed a feeling of helplessness and continued to question how the situation could have been prevented. As Dr. Randi explains, “This is not the first time anyone has ever had lice. It’s just the feeling of being powerless that is frustrating for Ms. Johnson. We have access to medicine to clean it, we know where we get it from and that once it is cleaned we can control whether or not we are exposed to it again.” Stable housing is something we may take for granted, but for Ms. Johnson, it was a large part of her struggle to survive without control over her surroundings.
Over the months, Bread for the City’s housing attorneys worked to preserve Ms. Johnson’s housing voucher and her case workers at Bread for the City and Catholic Charities continued to search for apartment. Finally, in late May, Ms. Johnson moved into her new apartment. Although Ms. Johnson continues to come to Bread for medical care, and case management rep payee services, she now has a safe place to store the medicine she receives from Bread for the City and the choice to go to a healthy environment when she wants. “I should just think about myself now,” Ms. Johnson says to reassure herself as she begins a new life. Her story represents how stable housing is important to prevent illnesses or unhygienic conditions, enabling people to control their own health. Ms. Johnson’s seizures have lessened to once or twice in three weeks as she keeps an open mind to ways of beginning a medical regime like getting a home health aide. “I feel much better,” she said, “I don’t have to worry about surviving and can just live.”