Damilla Thornton was dealt a pretty bad hand in life, but somehow she manages to smile while hawking One Step Away, the newspaper produced by homeless people, outside of the Weavers Way market in Chestnut Hill. (Her photo is on the back cover of the paper she’s holding.)—-Photo by Len Lear

by Constance Garcia-Barrio

The murder that snuffed out her mother’s life ravaged the whole family. “My mom had gone to California to visit a friend,” said Damilla Thornton, 28, who sells One Step Away, Philadelphia’s street newspaper, produced and distributed by people experiencing homelessness. Thornton hawks the paper at the Weavers Way markets in Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy. “When the police found my mom’s body it was decomposed. She had been strangled.”

The date of her mother’s death remains a mystery, but Thornton and her family got word of the homicide on July 6, 2002. “I was 12 years old, and I stopped talking for a while after my mom died and then cried,” she said. “It’s a cold case now.”

Thornton, her brother and two sisters — one older, one younger — all of them minors, lived with their maternal grandmother for two years. “She had a house at 20th and Montgomery in North Philly with three stories and 10 bedrooms. She was supposed to sign it over to the family, but she died of natural causes — diabetes — before she did. The city took the house and demolished it.”

Thornton found herself homeless at times (“My sisters and I were sitting on the curb with our things.”) before she wound up in the foster care system. “I ended up in a group home. I learned new skills, like environmental maintenance and buffing and stripping floors. I already knew how to clean houses because I had done that with my grandmother in super-duper parts of town.”

At 18, Thornton moved in with a maternal great-aunt, where her sisters and several cousins were living. “We were a house full of girls, always clashing with each other. Someone would shout, ‘You used my deodorant!’ and someone else would say, ‘You moved my lotion!’ Stupid stuff. My aunt decided we had to go.”

Thornton found herself bouncing from place to place. “I would be in Southwest Philly one night and North Philly the next,” she said. “One time, I had to fight off a man. I just wanted a place to sleep, but he wanted something else. You see this mark on my face? He did that.”

Thornton’s experience isn’t unusual. Young people who age out of foster care have independence thrust on them, but they have few or no resources, according to many studies, including one by Eboni Baugh, an assistant professor at the University of Florida. Their biggest challenge is finding stable housing, Baugh found.

As a vendor of One Step Away for the past two years, Thornton has found a tenuous hold on security. “People at the (Weavers Way) Co-op know me,” she said. “They greet me, ask me how I’m doing. They let me sell papers there.” Vendors of One Step Away buy the paper for 25 cents to cover the cost of printing and sell it for one dollar.

Other people have tried to help Thornton. “One of my supporters is going to buy me a tablet,” said Damilla, who has also found friends in the managers of some thrift stores. “The ladies know me. They work with me.” She smiled.

Still, Thornton has moved 20 times in the past year, she said. Right now, she lives in a place “that’s OK. It’s a small room, but it’s clean. I don’t have to worry about bugs biting me. You can look at a place and tell whether you’ll have a problem with bugs or if the kitchen is about to fall apart. I never want to be out on the curb again. I want to be where I can keep clean.”

Other worries plague Thornton. Fears about a close relative top the list. “She’s losing weight, and her nails have turned dark. I think she’s using drugs. She needs inpatient placement.” Even achieving that crucial goal would mean one more thing for Thornton to juggle. “I would like to take care of her daughter, who’s two years old. I don’t want her in the foster care system.”

Thornton doesn’t see that child as a burden but rather as a reason for living. “She’s my everything. I like to buy her little things, like Play Doh. She’s the reason why I’m going on.” Thornton’s love for the child reveals an important capacity. “I think the gift God gave me is I like kids. I could work in day care of help kids with disabilities.” She has also cared for the elderly.

Thornton hopes that her income from selling the paper will provide a stepping stone to her other goals. “I would like an efficiency apartment and training to work in child care,” she said. “I have to get in touch with the Board of Education to find out what I need to get my GED. That diploma would make me so happy. My grandmom wanted me to go to school.”

Meanwhile, as cold weather approaches, Thornton has more pressing concerns. “I need warm shoes, a coat and jeans,” she said, “and I want to make sure that the little girl has warm clothes and books, too.”

Thornton can be reached at 302-333-5906.