By Terrence McCoy
March 28 washingtonpost.com
The city didn’t seem to be doing enough. Neither were the nonprofit groups. But maybe she — as nothing more than another human who cared — could accomplish what they couldn’t. Maybe she could get this couple out of a tent where they’d lived for more than two years, at the base of Union Station, and into housing.
When The Washington Post published a profile Friday of Monica Diaz, a fast-food restaurant employee simultaneously navigating the homeless and working worlds, Howard University law student Gabriela Sevilla immediately got to work.
She organized efforts to assist Diaz and her husband, Pete Etheridge, launching a GoFundMe campaign that started out small — but rapidly grew — and committing hours every day to getting them off the streets. Within a week, the fund raised more than $22,000, and the couple that Sevilla set out to help are on the verge of housing, either through a city program or by finding an apartment on their own.
Sevilla, a 25-year-old intern with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless, first met Diaz and Etheridge on Feb. 28. It was the day of an encampment cleanup — biweekly sweeps that city officials say are necessary to keep the streets safe, but which homeless advocates say are dehumanizing and can strip the homeless of what little they have. Diaz, who’d just undergone another sleepless night, was frantic. She was begging for help and attention.
“We’re human beings!” she yelled. “Please, just acknowledge us!”
Sevilla, who was attending the cleanup as a legal observer, spoke with Diaz for a long while that day, and after she left, she couldn’t stop thinking about her. Here was a woman just like her — a Latina raised by immigrants, who’d never had much in her life. Sevilla knew what it was like to get evicted and to feel untethered from family. In an alternative reality, Sevilla realized, their roles could easily have been swapped, with her in the tent and Diaz peering in from the outside.
“I could have been right there with her in that tent,” she said.
She set out first to raise money for them with the GoFundMe campaign.
“This could happen to anyone,” she wrote in the introduction, posting a modest goal of $2,500, enough, she assumed, for a security deposit and first month’s rent on an apartment. “Many of us are one bad day or one missed paycheck away from homelessness.”
Then she hit publish and waited.
By early morning, the campaign had reached half that amount. Then it went past it. Then it went way past it. By Wednesday afternoon, the campaign had cruised to nearly $17,000.
“We’re so used to seeing people experiencing homelessness as invisible, so I wasn’t expecting that reaction at all,” Sevilla said. “I was expecting people to judge them — that they don’t work enough. I’d lost my optimism a long time ago, but it’s come back. I’m so surprised, and it’s a blessing.”
But the money wasn’t enough by itself. She wanted to do something with it.
So shortly after the fundraiser began, Sevilla got in her car and drove to the spot beneath the H Street overpass on First Street NE, blocks from the U.S. Capitol, near CNN’s Washington bureau. There, she found the tent encampment, one of many in urban areas that have come to symbolize the depth of the nation’s affordable housing crisis and inability to solve its homelessness problem. Inside one of the tents were Diaz and Etheridge.
It was only a few thousand dollars at that point, but the couple were stunned to hear that strangers wanted to help them. “This is going all toward our rent,” Monica announced. But Sevilla had more in mind.They all got into her car, even Sassy, Diaz and Etheridge’s dog.
The first stop was the Denny’s, then on to the Humane Society, where they got care and a collar for Sassy, then to the TJ Maxx to buy new clothing. “It felt like she’s my sister,” Sevilla said.
“I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have Gabi in my corner,” Diaz said. “In every aspect, she’s everything for me.”
Meanwhile, Sevilla maintained her normal responsibilitiesat work and home:
“My day: Visited Monica & Pete,” she tweeted Tuesday. “Went to an encampment sweep. . . . 3 classes, meeting, & Giant. Almost home.”
There, Sevilla worked on Diaz’s résumé, printing it out and bringing her copies. Then Diaz, who had been working under the table at a fast-food restaurant for pay far below the minimum wage, started looking for a new job.
Sevilla posted a photo of Diaz on Tuesday morning looking like a different person — makeup done, hair pulled back, clutching a notebook. “Update: Monica looking spectacular before her interview this morning,” Sevilla wrote. And now, if Subway wants to call Diaz back and hire her, she will have a working phone to answer the call.
Diaz and Etheridge are still living in the tent — for now. But since the story has come out, the city has told them they’ve been approved for the Rapid Rehousing program, which helps house the homeless. And with their newfound money, they’re also working on housing applications, planning on Saturday to view a one-bedroom apartment renting for $1,100 per month. For Diaz, the location is perfect: It’s near Sevilla, who shares a two-bedroom apartment with her mother and brother.
“I thought nobody cared,” Diaz said Wednesday, still amazed by how much her life has changed in a few days.
“I’ve learned to hope again,” Sevilla said.
“I’m just happy that [Diaz] is happy,” he said. “That’s the main thing. Every day is a smile now.”