[Hpn] A Descent Into Despair For an Educated Man;Washington Post;7/7/01
Morgan W. Brown
Sat, 07 Jul 2001 12:52:03 -0400
Saturday, July 7, 2001
Washington Post <http://www.washingtonpost.com>
A Descent Into Despair For an Educated Man
Dream of a New Life Now a Nightmare of Homelessness
By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Zephania Nyabanga removed the pegboard that covers the entrance to an
abandoned shed in the woods of Northern Virginia, revealing the place he now
calls home. Inside lay an old chaise longue covered with a junked mattress
and blankets, some flattened cardboard cartons and a few pieces of clothing.
"The good thing is, it's solid," he said, rapping the shed's metal
walls. "It doesn't leak at all."
Nyabanga, 55, a refugee from Mozambique who speaks four languages,
came to the United States in 1985 with dreams of starting a new life. He had
a bachelor's degree in philosophy that he had received in Kenya
under a U.N. scholarship; within a few years of arriving here, he
received a master's degree from a Lutheran seminary in Indiana,
officials there confirmed. He briefly led a church in Louisiana, then
became a substitute teacher in Alexandria and Fairfax County.
But a series of misfortunes, combined with bouts of depression, have
shattered his dreams and cast him into the ranks of Northern Virginia's
growing homeless population. Now, jobless and alone, he spends his nights in
the pitch-darkness of the woods around Fort Belvoir, listening to the
chittering of raccoons and the howls of foxes.
How did it come to this, and why can't he pull himself out? he wonders.
"I feel like the walking dead," the soft-spoken Nyabanga said recently
as he sat in the doorway of the shed, shaded by pine and oak trees. "I
tell myself, 'Come on now, it's not like I just finished elementary
school. Why am I like this?' I keep searching . . . for the answer."
Nyabanga may be better-educated than most homeless people, Fairfax
social workers say, but his situation is hardly unique.
"There's a very large, almost invisible homeless population that really
could be more productive . . . but it's a very difficult road," said Tia
Breeding, coordinator of homeless services for the Mount Vernon Center for
Community Mental Health.
A survey earlier this year identified 1,935 homeless people in the
county, but the tally is believed to have missed many, she said. "There are
more people accessing soup kitchens than there have been before. A lot of
people on the edge have become newly homeless in the last year or so."
Nyabanga might be a good candidate for a shelter, Breeding said, but
there are no openings. With subsidized housing also in short supply,
people are staying in shelters longer than ever, swelling the waiting
Living outside, with limited access to food, showers, laundry services
and phones, the homeless can easily become hopelessly mired.
"The last step down from diminished resources to homelessness sometimes is
not a very big step. But the step up out of homelessness . . . can be
absolutely enormous," Breeding said. "It's like quicksand: Once they fall
in, it's very hard to get out."
Nyabanga said he fled the fighting in Mozambique in 1970, winding up in
Kenya, where he taught school and attended college. He married a Ugandan
woman, and they had four children before divorcing, he said. He set his
sights on continuing his education in the United States and applied for a
"I imagined myself a well-to-do man," he said. With a doctoral degree,
"maybe I could become a professor."
After getting his master's degree in art and religion from Concordia
Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Ind., in 1990, he was a minister for
about a year in Louisiana. He then made his way to Alexandria, where he
lived in a church basement for a time while he worked as a substitute
His life took a turn in 1996, he said, when he was injured in an auto
accident and the church that had been harboring him closed. He began
living in his car while working at an office-supply store in Baileys
Fairfax County school officials said Nyabanga last taught there in
1996; Alexandria took him off its substitute list in 1998, three years
after his last payday, because officials could not locate him.
In late May, Nyabanga's battered 1987 Mitsubishi was towed from a
shopping center parking lot. Inside were all his possessions, he said,
including his diplomas and photos of his children. But he could not
afford the towing and storage charges to get them back, he said.
A social worker who called Al's Towing and Storage for Nyabanga said he was
told that if the fees -- more than $1,000 and mounting daily -- were not
paid, the car would be sold at auction and Nyabanga would be taken to court
to recover any remaining costs.
A manager at Al's who identified herself only as Christine confirmed
the company's policy, saying, "We don't give the contents of the vehicle
until the vehicle is paid for."
"I've lost everything," Nyabanga said. "If they had let me take my
degrees, I wouldn't feel so much pain. I have no proof of my education."
Breeding said she's heard these Catch-22 stories before: Nyabanga needs
money to get his documents, but he needs his documents to earn
sufficient money to pay his debt.
Instead, Nyabanga is forced to take odd jobs doing manual labor. But
there are more and more people lining up at the temp agency, he said,
and fewer jobs.
He tries to keep himself neat, washing in a creek about a half mile
from the shed. He often eats only once a day, courtesy of a Route 1 soup
kitchen, and gets his clothes from a charity. He normally leaves his shed by
5:30 in the morning and doesn't return until after 8 p.m.,
varying his route so as not to attract attention.
Alone in the woods much of the time, he worries that he could be killed by a
stranger and no one would know. But so far, his worst enemies have been
mosquitoes and occasional depression.
When that hits, he seeks out other homeless people in the woods and
listens to their stories. "Then I feel I am not alone," he said. "That
relieves me a little bit."
But the depth to which his life has plunged has a way of holding him
"I feel a lack of motivation, because I feel like I'm defeated," he
said. "I tried and tried and tried, but nothing has happened."
**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this
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Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA
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