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Buying shoes may have saved JoAnn Jackson’s life. 

That’s right, shoes. When JoAnn was struggling to end her 30-year addiction to crack cocaine, buying shoes became a key part of her strategy.  

“The hardest part of ending my addiction was dealing with the cravings,” JoAnn said. “I had to be strong enough to say ‘no’ to the drug dealers. So, if I had any spare money in my pocket, I’d walk past the dealers and use the money to get on the bus to buy shoes.” 

What may seem like a frivolous purchase to some became a life-saving measure for JoAnn. He new shoes were proof of not only her discipline but of her rediscovered ability to truly care for herself. 

JoAnn attributes her descent into homelessness to her drug dependency. “I had always wanted to fit in, to be a part of something bigger,” JoAnn said. 

So, when the crowd she was hanging out with left to do drugs in another room, JoAnn followed. She was popular in that circle because she had money from her business endeavors. But neither the money nor the friendships lasted. “I put drugs before my livelihood, and I was eventually evicted,” Jo Ann said. 

While on the streets, she met other homeless people who became her temporary family. Together, they would find abandoned houses or cars to sleep in at night. They rose at 4 a.m. to stand in the day laborer lines and then pooled their money at the end of the day to buy more drugs. 

JoAnn had money because she was a successful entrepreneur before she discovered crack. When JoAnn graduated from D.C.’s Roosevelt High in 1965, she was accepted to Howard University. Without enough money to pay for college, JoAnn decided to get a full-time job instead. One opportunity led to another and JoAnn and a partner went into business for themselves. 

“We worked on the submarine base in New Haven, Connecticut. We would feed the sailors and clean up the mess hall,” JoAnn said. 

She worked seven days a week, owned a car, and saved money. When she decided to return to D.C., things started to go downhill. 

The first time JoAnn went into a drug rehabilitation program, she wasn’t really interested in getting clean. “I went because I wanted to get out of the cold,” JoAnn reported. 

Not long after going back out on the streets, she found herself surrounded by a much more violent crowd. One night, she was beaten so badly that she needed medical attention. It was a wake-up call of sorts. “I realized I was slowly killing myself,” JoAnn said. 

This time she sought help at the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV). 

Her experience at CCNV was both a blessing and a curse. “Not long after I started stay at CCNV, I was raped by another resident. This brought back memories of being sexually abused by my uncle from the age of 10 to 18,” JoAnn revealed. 

The memories triggered a deep depression, and JoAnn was admitted to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, where she stayed for three months. But the blessing was that JoAnn finally discovered the underlying reason for her addition. She credits St. Elizabeth’s, New Endeavors by Women, and the D.C. Rape Crisis Center with helping her begin to heal the scars left by her molester. Step by step, JoAnn transitioned to life permanently off the streets. 

JoAnn remembers vividly the expression on her mother’s face when she went home to visit after years of separation from her family, who she used to be embarrassed to see. 

When her mother saw her for the first time after JoAnn’s real rehabilitation began – hair done, weight gained, skin smooth – she immediately hugged her and started to cry. 

Now, JoAnn is happy to be back in contact not only with her mother but also with her son, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter. JoAnn also proudly reports that her granddaughter will fulfill the college dream. 

Today, JoAnn fills her time with speaking engagements across the country through the National Coalition for the Homeless. She gets past her fear of speaking in public by thinking about the one person in the audience who is secretly abusing alcohol or crack, for whom her story could spark hope and mark a new beginning. “People have come to me in tears, hugging me, thanking me for speaking out,” said JoAnn.