For the first time in her 23 years, Riana Johnson can feel safe.
She can care for her 3-year-son and newborn daughter, and not worry about how they will eat, where they will sleep, or who next will try to hurt them.
Now living at Columbus’ Damascus Way, a shelter for homeless women and children, she has much to be thankful for, and much to hope for, and much to remember.
As a child, she was sexually abused in foster care, her Mississippi birth mother having given her up around age 1. At 5, an foster family adopted her in Urbandale, Iowa, near Des Moines, and subjected her and seven other children to severe physical abuse, prompting Riana repeatedly to run away.
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She over the years often has been homeless, the first time when she escaped from her adoptive parents at age 16 and for a week wound up in the company of a man in his mid-30s, who drugged and raped her in the woods.
She nearly died of alcohol poisoning while living on the street in Des Moines, ended up in a hospital and later in rehabilitation, though she was not addicted. She met a lover in Ames, Iowa, where she became pregnant, and moved in with him before he, too, became abusive, threatening her with knives, so she ran away from him, too.
She returned to Des Moines, where she was living in a shelter when at age 19 she gave birth to her son, Trenton Jamal Bonham, whom she calls “T.J.” Soon she moved back into an apartment with the boy’s father, but his violent behavior resumed: He forced her to have sex, and put chemicals in her food, tainting the milk she was feeding her little boy.
She fled to Minnesota, to move in with a friend, then went online searching for her birth mother, whom she found in Brookhaven, Miss. She and T.J. moved there in July 2016, when she met her biological father.
She also met a man she dated there, and became pregnant again.
But she could not stay with her mother. “Her mind’s not right,” she said. So she moved again, first to an apartment her father found, and then to Ponchatoula, La., to live with a roommate.
Last August she connected with a man who offered her a place in Kansas City, Mo., but she discovered he was dangerously unbalanced. When he abandoned her and her son, she wound up in Wichita, where she got in touch with a man who offered her a place in Columbus.
But the man was not so generous, she soon learned, and tried to take advantage of her. When she refused his advances, he called the police, and ordered her off his property.
And then she was homeless again, but this time also pregnant, with a 3-year-old son, in the stifling August heat.
She met a sheriff’s deputy who tried to help, but all the shelters here were full. He gave her $40 for a motel room, and after that she went to a hospital just to find air-conditioning.
And then, finally, this past Aug. 20, her luck turned for the better.
She met a man who had worked at the House of Mercy, and he got her connected to someone at Damascus Way, the women and children’s shelter operated by the Valley Rescue Mission.
On Thanksgiving Day, as the mission fed hundreds at its main facility on Second Avenue, and volunteers readied meals for delivery in an adjacent room at Damascus Way, Riana sat there cradling a newborn daughter in her arms, and talked about all she had been through, and all she had to hope for.
“I’m just getting stable, focusing on myself and my babies,” she said.
A brutal childhood
Beatings with hammers and broomsticks, icy-cold showers, scalding baths, being held underwater until she feared she would drown, getting kicked in the stomach and stomped on the leg — these are her childhood memories.
To this day, she dislikes deep water, and will not get close to the Chattahoochee River, and for that she can thank a foster mother.
“She was trying to wash my hair in the tub, and then she started trying to drown me,” Riana recalled. The woman held her head under water as Riana struggled: “I still remember that.”
From age 6 to 16, she was in the Urbandale home with four adopted brothers, two adopted sisters and a half-sister, and two parents who did not know what they were doing, but did it anyway.
She attended public school until third grade, but couldn’t concentrate, each day dreading going home. “They took me out of school because I was severely traumatized…. I could not focus. I was worried about going back home, the fear of getting beat up, or me not doing something right. ... Our parents would grab us, slam our heads against the walls, stomp on us, throw us around, take a toothbrush and scrub our armpits.”
Failing to meet her parents’ expectations meant harsh punishment. And their home was like a prison she could not escape, as the couple had put locks and alarms on all the windows and doors.
Once one of the kids stole an ice-cream bar from the freezer, and would not confess, so all were subjected to torture — lined up against the wall, their toes smashed with a hammer.
They were compelled to assume stressful positions, such as “front-leaning,” the posture for doing push-ups. “They’d make us do that for hours,” she said.
At age 12, she was ordered to do 50 push-ups, and couldn’t. When she stopped, her mother kicked her repeatedly in the stomach, until she could not breathe.
“You’d better stop crying,” the woman told her. “If you drop another tear, I’m going to drop you.”
Two years later, her father put her back in the push-up position, and twice he jumped off the couch to land on her leg, spraining it.
The parents made the kids stand in the shower, under cold water, and scrubbed their armpits with toothbrushes until they bled.
She became suicidal, so miserable she didn’t want to live.
When the man threw her half-sister against a wall so hard it broke, she thought about trying to escape.
At 16, without packing a change of clothes, she opened a window, jumped out and ran, and in downtown Des Moines met the 36-year-old homeless man who promised to help her, but raped her instead.
Fleeing him, she ran into the police, who put her in the hospital, where she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and anxiety disorder. After a month of therapy, social services got involved, and sent her back to the home she had escaped.
After a few weeks there, she ran away again, back to Des Moines, where she nearly killed herself drinking, and wound up back in the hospital, where she was given medication for trauma.
She went into a rehabilitation program in Sioux City, where after a month she ran away again. The police found her, again, and put her back in rehab, again, and then sent her back to her adoptive parents in Urbandale, again.
A month later, her juvenile probation officer got her out, and put her in a group home. At 18, she completed a program to get her high-school equivalency diploma, and then moved into an apartment with a roommate.
It was around this time she began dating a man, and moved in with him and his mother near Ames, Iowa. The mother assaulted them and wound up in jail. They moved into a shelter, where she became pregnant, and then they moved into a mobile home.
He became abusive, and went to jail. She went to a shelter in Des Moines, gave birth to T.J., and then moved into an apartment with the boyfriend who’d been in jail, and who tried to poison her and their son.
So she moved to Minnesota to live with a friend, and then, on July 22, 2016, she went to her birth mother’s home in Brookhaven, Miss., where she got pregnant again, by a second boyfriend. And then online she found a roommate in Louisiana, and moved there, but could not stay.
That’s when she met the crazy man from Kansas City who offered her a place, but she found him too unstable, and fled again, to Wichita, where online she saw an ad from a man in Columbus, Ga., who claimed he rented places to people in emergencies.
Coming to Columbus
“As soon as I get down here, to Columbus, Georgia, he tries to take advantage of me, saying, ‘Oh, you’re really pretty in person’ and all this kind of stuff. I said, ‘No, I’m not going to do nothing with you.’”
She insisted he stick to their agreement. He cussed her out and called the police. The police found him suspicious, and would not take his side. He ordered her to leave.
The police officers tried to find her a shelter, but the shelters were full. That was this past Aug. 15. Pregnant with a 3-year-old, she lived on the streets until a deputy gave her money for a motel room, and then later she went to a hospital just to find air-conditioning.
She was in limbo until the man who’d worked at the House of Mercy found her, and got her to Damascus Way on Aug. 20. She was six months’ pregnant.
She went into labor around 9 p.m. Friday, and got a ride to the Midtown Medical Center, where at 11:38 p.m. she gave birth to a daughter, 6 pounds and 11 ounces, and 20 inches long. She named the girl Milah Janel Johnson. Milah means “heavenly divine God’s gift,” she said.
Now she’s working on getting her son into daycare and Head Start, and caring for her infant, and signing up for whatever aid she can get. She’ll start looking for a job, when the baby’s a little older.
She has applied to the Housing Authority, hoping finally, after all those years of running from one torment to another, to have a home she can call her own.
This new hope for a better life has led to a spiritual awakening.
“I’ve been getting closer to God, focusing on the Lord more,” she said. “God, he’s on the move. He’s on the move. I’ve come a long way, and the Lord has helped me overcome a lot.”
Mitzi Oxford of Valley Rescue said her story is not that unusual. A woman in her 20s, with children, is the fastest-growing demographic in the homeless population. And it’s not uncommon to hear one say she was sexually abused around age 4, Oxford said: “That’s where the memories start.”
Finding homeless shelters are full is not rare, either. With 56 beds, Damascus Way is the largest one for women and children, and it’s turning away 200 a month, Oxford said.
It’s about to double its capacity with an expansion expected to open in May. It will rename the shelter then, calling it the Valley Rescue Mission Women and Children’s Shelter, so people will know what it is when they hear the name.
Maybe Riana, T.J. and Milah still will be there then, or maybe, by then, they will have moved on, to that home of their own, the one Riana never had.