Monica Diaz, Pete Etheridge, and their dog Sassy were living on the streets for more than two years. Now, 12 days and one Washington Post cover story later, a GoFundMe page raised more than $40,000 from more than 700 strangers to ensure they will never be homeless again.
So much has changed in the past few weeks for them. Before, Monica worked full-time at a fast food restaurant, making less than half of minimum wage and working under-the-table. Every two weeks, Monica, Pete, and Sassy had to pack up their things and temporarily move in order to protect their belongings during the tent “cleanups” the District government does under several underpasses in the NoMa neighborhood and next to Union Station.
“I’d sort of lost sense of hope; you know by me being out there trying to get help from people that are around in my area and nobody would help,” Monica states. “I actually thought nobody cared”
[Read more: “This is our fifth tent. I’m missing work right now so that I can be here and keep them from throwing away my stuff,” Monica told Street Sense Media during a Sept. 27 cleanup]
Monica and Pete’s journey out of homelessness began when Terrence McCoy, a reporter focused on poverty for the Washington Post, stopped by their tent and asked them some questions about their experiences being homeless. McCoy talked to Monica and Pete many times over the course of two weeks; he would show up and shadow their daily life for a couple of hours. Because he was there so often, he got to see the crux of their situation and how Monica tried to separate her work life from her personal life.
“She didn’t want people where she worked to know that she was homeless. It really shows the stigmatization of homelessness and poverty on the streets,” McCoy said. “No one wants to be associated with this non-person. She did not see herself as homeless, but everyone else did.”
The article begins with stories of how Monica’s old life was slowly stripped away through evictions and tent cleanups, where her valuables and IDs were thrown away by the city, contrary to its own protocols. A class-action lawsuit was filed last year against the city over property disposition during camp cleanups and is still making its way through the courts.
McCoy’s article ended with Monica’s emotional cry of, “Acknowledge us! We’re human beings! Please, just acknowledge us!”
And acknowledged she has been.
Within hours of the article’s publication online, McCoy started getting contacted about how to help Monica, Pete, and Sassy. So, he coordinated with Gabi Sevilla via Twitter, a close friend of Monica and Pete’s who he had met while shadowing the couple. After receiving several donations through Venmo, Sevilla set up a GoFundMe page to solicit public donations. The GoFundMe page has increased the goal from $2,000 to $20,000 and then again to $40,000 after lower amounts were met so easily. Gabi initially met Monica and Pete after an encampment cleanup.
Update: Monica looking spectacular before her interview this morning ??New Outfit made possible by your donations and our trip to TJ Maxx in Ivy City ? Hoping for a call back on her new phone ? Thank You everyone ! https://t.co/FtRTIG3o0G pic.twitter.com/e174x2CRvv
— Gabi (@GabrielaSevi) March 25, 2019
“She actually has done a lot for me,” Monica said. “She’s printed out resumes, she’s got me [and Pete] lifeline phones, she’s bought me clothing for interviews, food, dog food, shoes. Gabi has done a lot.”
Pete interjected, “She’s the best one in the corner now. I trust her with my life.”
[Read more: Several months ago, during a Nov. 8 cleanup, it was hard for Monica and Pete to trust anyone.]
Sevilla, a Howard University Law student from Newark, New Jersey, has done so much for Monica and Pete that McCoy wrote a follow-up article for the Post, which may have contributed to the sustained popularity of the GoFundMe page.
Part of the reason Monica, Pete, and Sevilla have become so close is that Sevilla has been through a similar situation.
“I know what it’s like to not have family to support you, to not be a kid, to not have a childhood, just go from baby to adult,” Sevilla said. “I saw Monica and talked to her for maybe two or three seconds. I think one of the first things [Monica] said to me is that our dads came here from another country for a better life and look where we are, still struggling.”
Help did not come to Monica and Pete without personal feelings of shame, however. They were initially embarrassed by the idea of having their story published on the front page of one of the largest newspapers in the United States. But they overcame their fears and let McCoy into their lives because they felt it would better their situation.
“When [the story] came out, I’m going to be completely honest with you, I felt a little humiliated,” Monica said. “I felt like I had to humiliate myself to get help. But at the end of the day, I had to think about my family. If I had to humiliate myself, then, by all means, I’d do it”
However, Monica and Pete are well on their way to finding permanent housing for themselves and Sassy. They have been approved for a Rapid Rehousing voucher from the Department of Human Services and they potentially could move into an apartment as early as April 3.
The reach of their story has astounded Monica, Pete, and Gabi too. Sevilla said she has gotten phone calls from as far as Puerto Rico and the Netherlands. Monica also noticed how she and Sassy have become public figures.
“I can walk down the street [and suddenly I’ll hear], ‘Hey Sassy!’” Monica said with a chuckle. “They don’t even say ‘hi’ to me, [Sassy]’s really popular. They’ll just be like, ‘Is that Sassy?’ Yes, that’s Sassy.”
I just want to point out that Monica is glowwwing !? She’s naturally so beautiful !
Changed the GoFundMe profile pic to this one ? https://t.co/FtRTIG3o0G https://t.co/aBYjctWkMp
— Gabi (@GabrielaSevi) March 24, 2019
Monica, Pete, and Gabi are happy that their story is increasing visibility about the homelessness crisis in D.C. and the United States, but feel that people need to recognize that homelessness has been a problem for decades.
“I used to always feel like I was always screaming in a tunnel about all the stuff I see every day, going to the encampment sweeps, my work at Washington Legal Clinic,” Sevilla said. “I would tell my classmates, write it in a group chat, and no one was listening. And now I think they are, so I’m not screaming in a tunnel anymore.”
Monica and Pete are grateful to everyone who supported them in the wake of the Washington Post article. They are planning on putting the money they raised in a trust and using it on rent for years to come.
“I want to thank everybody from the bottom of my heart for donating, this means the world to me. Without them, I don’t even know where I would be right now,” Monica states. “They took a whole bunch of weight off my shoulders because I felt like I was drowning and now I can come up for air.”
They are indoors ❤️
One family down and so many more to go! Let’s not forget the other 6,000+ people experiencing homelessness in DC ! +nationwide!
Tomorrow I’ll be back at 1st street NE to observe another encampment sweep- we still have so much work to do! pic.twitter.com/DJKynUSkJy
— Gabi (@GabrielaSevi) April 4, 2019