Three years ago, Paula Buggage sat on the edge of her hotel-room bed and counted her last bit of money. It wasn’t much — definitely not enough to keep the room for another night.
“You keep counting your money as though it’s going to somehow magically turn into a lot more. It doesn’t,” said Buggage, now 57.
She was out of options. After moving to D.C. from Georgia to take care of her ailing father, her parents’ home was taken from her by a family member. Her father passed away, then four months later, her husband died.
Buggage and her sons slept in the car. Then, that was repossessed.
“When you’re at the beginning of this situation, you actually believe you can fix it, that it’s a fixable situation. But what you don’t know is that you’re so incredibly damaged,” said Buggage, who was also battling kidney disease.
“I was just drowning. I was homeless because of something that family did to me. It wasn’t because of alcohol, it wasn’t because of drugs, but because of someone that I trusted.”
On her final night in the hotel room, Buggage picked up the phone and dialed 311 — a toll-free line that connects D.C. residents to city services. It was on that call that Buggage first heard about N Street Village, an organization that helps women overcome homelessness.
Buggage used her last few dollars to reach the Logan Circle-based nonprofit and got there just before it closed. The staff there told her the women were about to get on a shuttle to go to a shelter for the night, and advised her to follow them, but to come back in the morning.
“I kept coming back, and the healing began,” Buggage said.
“It is not overnight, and you still continue to heal because when you’re homeless, it’s not just physical, it’s not just mental, it’s so many different things. And when you’re broken, it takes you a while to heal.”
At meals with other women and through classes on nutrition, jewelry making, meditation and tai chi, Buggage slowly let go of the anger and bitterness that plagued her when she arrived. And, for the first time in a while, she had fun.
“When you are broken, you don’t dream anymore. I had stopped dreaming,” she said.
Like many of the nearly 2,000 women who rely on N Street Village each year, Buggage’s life has taken a dramatic turn. She is currently looking for an apartment of her own and just recently celebrated her first year of employment since becoming homeless.
“I have an office for the very first time. I walk in and you should see me smiling, because, to be honest with you, I close my eyes and remember the woman who was sleeping in a car,” she said.
She is also able to purchase things on her own, including a ticket to N Street Village’s annual food-themed fundraiser, Celebrate Logan, taking place Sept. 14 from 3 to 6 p.m. A $37 ticket ($60 for VIP) grants attendees access to a number of 14th Street restaurants for food and drink samples at their own pace. All of the proceeds benefit N Street Village.
“Being at N Street, it gave me back my nerve, gave me back my joy, my determination, my dreams, my worth. Because if you are [made] homeless by someone you trusted, that does damage to you that takes a long time to heal. But I’m still healing,” Buggage said.
“It’s one step at a time, but the woman in the mirror is worth it. We are worth it.”