Two months ago, Syrita Powers was facing eviction, unsure if she’d have to move her family — including three daughters with disabilities — into a homeless shelter.
On Thursday, she sat in her new living room and shook her head in wonder. Exactly a week before, Powers had signed a mountain of paperwork and received the keys to her very first home. She insisted her oldest, 13-year-old Madison, sit at the closing table with her because she wanted her daughter to witness what felt like a miracle.
“Every morning, I wake up and pinch myself — this belongs to me,” said Powers, 43, motioning to the West Philadelphia rowhouse so bare it echoed and so full of promise she already has detailed plans for every room. “I feel like we hit the lottery.”
On Sunday, Mother’s Day, Powers will be recognized by an Olney church as a “mother who overcame,” which feels like both honor and understatement.
“I feel like God has sent me to tell someone else, ‘Please keep going,’” Powers said. “People know if I did this, they can definitely do it, too.”
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In 2015, Powers found herself in the stroke unit of Lankenau Hospital, unable to lift her own arms. Her husband, Aaron, had just lost his job of 15 years. Their three girls had significant special needs, and their son, Aaron Jr., died a few hours after his premature birth. Powers thought she might need to use a wheelchair to get around, and the question of where the family would live and how they would move forward plagued her. Powers used to work as a nursing assistant and her husband, Aaron, in a factory, but their medical conditions and their kids’ needs precluded them from full-time work, and so they rely on disability payments.
But Powers prides herself on being a “point of light” for others, no matter the darkness of her own room. She pushed through physical therapy and figured out ways to cope with fibromyalgia and other medical conditions. She and her husband, who struggles with kidney disease, are a strong team caring for Madison, Georgia, 11, and Logan, 9. (Maddie and Logan have autism; Georgia has intellectual disabilities. The younger two girls are nonverbal.)
The pandemic challenged the family; Georgia and Logan had especially regressed without access to in-person education for a full year. And the Powers family rental became untenable. A compromised roof rendered one bedroom unusable, and a sewage leak ruined most of the family’s possessions and drew rodents.
The landlord refused to fix the issues, Powers said; eventually, the family put resources toward addressing the problem themselves, which left them without rent. Public records show both multiple Licenses and Inspections violations against the landlord and an eviction order against the Powers family.
“Madison said to me, ‘Mom, we do not deserve to live in these conditions,’” Powers said. “I said, ‘God, if you just get me over this threshold, I’m going to make it.’”
Powers’ free time is typically devoted to two things: reading and helping people. She runs an online support group, helping other parents of kids with special needs advocate for them, passing along information about programs that help families with energy costs, food, and diapers. She had helped teach others how to buy homes, but that felt impossible for her family.
But with their backs against the wall, something clicked for Powers.
“I said to myself, ‘Girl, you can do that, too,’” Powers said. “I didn’t take all those classes to not become a homeowner.”
Powers fixed her credit. She took the Urban League of Philadelphia’s class for first-time home buyers. She got preapproved for a mortgage, looked at 20 houses, and bid on one where she sees her family living for decades, a beauty with hardwood floors and walls painted gleaming white, a finished basement, three bedrooms, two full bathrooms and a powder room.
“I’m very proud; I’m not bragging, but we did this on less than $40,000 a year,” she said. It took careful budgeting. To show she could manage the house payments, Powers had virtually no cash for 90 days. There was no money for extras or even school uniforms, but the girls were always clean, and no one missed a meal.
Powers matched a bright blue dress with pearls and high heels to wear at closing. When she turned the key on the house for the first time it was officially hers, her mother shouted, prayed, sang and danced in the empty living room. Powers beamed, and the girls raced around.
These days, Powers has no car and the new house has exactly three pieces of furniture: two air mattresses and a lime green chair Georgia likes to sit in. They have a houseplant and some kitchen basics, but there’s no washing machine or dryer; the budget doesn’t stretch to fit those yet. But Powers has a plan: Save six months of mortgage payments ($1,431.36 per month, a number Powers rattles off from memory), then buy furniture. The family will make do until then.
“I felt like I was failing at first, because I can’t give the girls this perfect life,” Powers said. “But you know what? We blow up balloons from the Dollar Tree every day. We play cards, and we go outside. They’re happy. We’re happy.”
People on the block have smiled and introduced themselves. Maddie has designs on play dates in the basement; Logan loves the little backyard, a concrete square where Powers envisions putting down fake grass. Georgia has already learned to climb the front steps herself, thanks to a secure railing. She never managed that at the old house. Toilet training the younger two is more within reach, now that the family doesn’t have to share a single bathroom.
The house has given Powers more room to dream. She sees herself as a business owner, Madison in college. She wants to figure out a way to pay off the house in 10 years.
“It’s important for me to secure something for Georgia and Madison and Logan,” Powers said. “We’ve had setbacks and shortcomings, but we made up for it in the last lap. We defied gravity.”