Safe Harbor for Vulnerable Women

Natasha Guynes helps others to rebuild their lives and get off the streets. From the January/February 2019 issue.

Natasha Guynes with Dehkontee Chanchan. Guynes runs an organization that helps vulnerable women.

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I meet Natasha Guynes in the cluttered basement office of HER Resiliency Center, a nonprofit she founded to help vulnerable women aged 18-25. As we talk, Guynes gushes about women like Brittany, who struggled with homelessness and unemployment but now works at a local hardware store. And Dehkontee (pictured above), who was homeless and about to age out of foster care but soon attended college (and made the dean’s list). In 2018, she was hired full-time for HER Resiliency’s ever-growing street outreach team.

When Guynes formed the organization in 2016, she and her team worked with 52 women. Now it assists over 300 people annually (mostly women, but some men) who struggle with homelessness and drug abuse. Its vital services include mentoring, identifying housing options, providing referrals for mental health and substance abuse treatment, and evaluating educational and job training programs. Staff members also patrol the streets, distributing clothes, blankets, hygiene products, and other essentials to women in need.

Like the women she serves, Guynes was once homeless. She abused drugs and even worked as an escort. Her willingness to share her own painful, powerful story is an effective tool for coaxing women off the streets. “Her openness draws people to her because they’re like, ‘Whatever I’ve faced, she’s lived something worse,’” says Ami Angell, HER’s street outreach manager. “She shares her story in ways that most of us can’t.”

Guynes was born to a 17-year-old mother in Louisiana. Her father was physically abusive and a drug addict, and the couple divorced when she was four. When her mother moved to Oklahoma, Guynes was left with her dad in a double-wide trailer. “I remember being in fifth grade, and my next-door neighbors — two girls my age — told me that they heard me screaming the night before,” she says. “They heard me when my dad was hitting me.”

Guynes went to live with her mother but returned to Louisiana when her mom went to college. She and her sister slept on box springs and suffered from neglect. Guynes remembers a shirt she’d received from her mother: She cherished it because she rarely saw her mom, but she wore it so frequently that some beads were falling off.

“It was precious to me, so I stopped washing it, but I kept wearing it,” she says. “I put cheap perfume on it. One day my dad said, ‘What’s that smell?’ and he realized it was me. I stank. The school bus was coming and he was like, ‘Go to school.’ He didn’t take proper care of me.”

At age 11, she tried killing herself to avoid a beating. Finally, when she was 20, she bought a one-way plane ticket to D.C. She was interested in politics and, as a child, had proclaimed that one day she would be president. “I was always ambitious,” she says. “But I didn’t know how to harness it.”

“Her openness draws people to her because they’re like, ‘Whatever I’ve faced, she’s lived something worse.’”

City life was a shock. She couldn’t afford college, struggled to pay rent, and lost jobs for showing up late. “One of the things we see with the women here at HER: They can get the job, but they can’t keep the job,” she says. “They don’t have the skills for time management and organization. That was definitely me.” One night she shared her frustrations with her neighbor, who suggested she become an escort. “You’ll make some fast cash — how hard could it be?” said the older woman.

The experience, she says, was “repulsive.” She quit after five months, but the pain lingered: She was hospitalized after overdosing on a combination of drugs and alcohol. Her life finally started to change when she saw a newspaper ad from the city’s Department of Behavioral Health. “The ad said, ‘Do you cry a lot? Are you sad a lot?’ I thought: That’s me! That’s me!” A therapist gave her the number for Alcoholics Anonymous, and three months later, in December 2001, she joined a 12-step recovery program.

She cries as she talks about the support she received. One woman helped her enter a city vocational program to find a job and money for college. Another assisted with her college schedule and would sometimes call in the morning to sing a get-out-of-bed song. Her life was improving, but it was difficult. She was evicted from her apartment and entered a homeless shelter. Desperate for cash, she even considered calling the D.C. madam. But one of her AA supporters told her, “Natasha, you can’t go forward and backward at the same time.”

“My first sponsor would have a few women over for dinner on Monday nights,” Guynes recalls. “I would talk and talk and talk. They gave me that safe space I was looking for, and I started to trust the people around me. They had my best interests at heart, which I’d never had before.” She graduated from college in 2006 and later earned her master’s degree. At age 26, she volunteered with AmeriCorps, co-managing a transitional home for 13 recovering drug-addicted and alcoholic women. A friend then helped her get a job in Sen. Harry Reid’s office. She started her new life by answering phones and rose to be director of operations, but she worried her dark past would be exposed. After googling herself — and finding her name on a list of D.C. escorts — she panicked. How could she cover it up? How could she still be haunted by her past?

She eventually took a job in a law firm as chief of staff but didn’t feel fulfilled. “I had a hole in my soul,” she says. Slowly, she began formulating an idea. Maybe she should create a nonprofit. Maybe, instead of hiding her past, she should embrace it and improve the lives of vulnerable women. “I had to be real enough with them to say, ‘I get this desperation. I get these feelings. How can we help you work through this?’ I knew that this was what I was supposed to do.”

What makes HER Resiliency different, she says, is that it focuses not just on crisis management and long-term stabilization, but on prevention. “Every organization requires you to already have a problem — you’re already homeless, you’re already a drug addict, you’re already a teenage mom,” she says. “We would rather provide preventive support than wait for them to age out of foster care, to be homeless, selling sex to survive, being trafficked up and down the East Coast.”

Most organizations for women maintain 9-to-5 hours, but Angell, the street outreach leader, has received calls from Guynes before dawn. “She’ll call and say, ‘I hate to ask you this, but this girl is incredibly vulnerable right now. She’s weeping at a 7-Eleven. Can you stay with her until I can get there?’ She will drop everything, at all hours, so that that individual can get help.”

When Guynes thinks back to her childhood, it still bothers her that neighbors ignored her screams. “In our society, we tend to think someone else will handle it,” she says. “But we need to take action ourselves.”

So if she could go back and talk to her former self — to that frightened little girl in the double-wide trailer — what would she say?

She thinks for a moment. “I would say it gets better,” she says. “There are people who care.”

Feature image: Natasha Guynes, left, and Dehkontee Chanchan. (Photo by Darrow Montgomery)

This article is featured in the January/February 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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