The holidays were always special to Latishia. She remembers clambering down the stairs alongside her brother, racing to be the first to rip the shiny paper off the toys piled under the tree.

But the holidays weren’t always easy. Her biological father was never a part of those Christmas morning scrambles. Prison visits were the only way she’d gotten to know him — he’d been incarcerated since before she can remember. She has no idea where he is today.

She’d been married herself for a while, but that broke apart within a few years. They’ve been separated since her ex moved across the country to California over 15 years ago, though they remain legally married. Latishia is currently going through the divorce process.

In recent years, Christmas Day has been spent at her mother’s house. Those days were special, Latishia is incredibly close with both her mom and stepdad. But she always wanted to be able to host her family at her own apartment.

That hadn’t been possible since at least 2012, the last time Latishia had a home of her own. She’d shared that two-bedroom, government-subsidized apartment with her youngest daughter for several years before losing it.

Latishia bounced around for a bit before being taken in by a cousin in Maryland. But the relationship was tenuous. The pair got into shouting matches that routinely ended with the cousin telling Latishia to leave.

“By the time I’d get packed up, she’d say, ‘Don’t go,’” Latishia remembers.

The stress wore on her. She could be put out at any moment. She’d have nowhere to go.

It was around this time Latishia first met Colleen and Julie, a case management and social work duo with Street Sense Media. Latishia remembers a meeting in 2017, seated around a big table filling out an intake form. One question asked what sort of help she needed.

She turned to Colleen and Julie. “Can you please help me find somewhere to go?”

Colleen and Julie, joined by a social worker from University Legal Services, went to work. The first step was to get Latishia out of her cousin’s house. They found an emergency overflow bed at one of the city’s shelters. It wasn’t easy — early mornings, fold-up beds, spartan living — but Latishia made the best of it. “It was kind of like being in the army. That’s the way I approached it.”

In September 2017, Latishia was approved for government-subsidized housing. But the process wasn’t over yet. She had to temporarily move into a women’s transitional program as she waited for a provider and apartment to be identified. She waited. And waited. She wanted to be in her own home by Thanksgiving, but that came and went. Her final line in the sand was Christmas.

On December 22, Latishia finally moved into her new apartment. The building staff, knowing how badly Latishia had wanted to celebrate the holiday in her own home, had a tree waiting in her living room, lights already strung.

She spent Christmas day with her mom and stepdad, who came over for a party hosted by her new building. It was at that party that Latishia first spoke to George. They’d be engaged within six months.

“He kept putting his eye on me. It was like a connection thing,” she says. ““I said ‘Mom, why does this guy keep dancing in front of me?’”

“You gotta know for yourself,” her mom said, smiling.

A month and a half later, George was in the living room of her new apartment, playing music on a small speaker. She’d asked him to DJ her housewarming party. George and her parents got along immediately, bonding over their shared love of the Oldies but Goodies. Latishia’s son and both of her daughters were there, grandchildren in tow. Julie and Colleen were there, along with social work teams from other agencies that had worked with Latishia.

As the music played, the group nibbled at a hearty spread and cut cake. Latishia, thrilled to be playing host, had decorated with her favorite color, pink.

It might not have been Christmas on the calendar, but for Latishia, surrounded by friends and family in the warmth of her own apartment, it was the holiday she’d always wanted.