In Shemeka’s shoes: The Shelter WithIN the Storm

Name : Shemeka Denise

Hometown: Dirty South by way of Harlem

Current Residence: Brooklyn

What does it mean to have a voice? Being unafraid to audaciously speak, live, and act on your convictions

How did you find your voice? Two words: Trial and Tribulation.

What event or series of events led to you finding your voice?

My journey to finding my voice has been a long and tedious one. Actually it’s similar to those infomercials about amazing products you must have on TV after 12am and think “how long is this going to last?” In 2014, I was working 2-3 jobs paying a meager hourly wage. So I was broke with a college degree, was ending a 10 year off and on again relationship, and living with my aunt and about 6 other people in a 2 bedroom apartment. I felt hopeless, discouraged, and valueless. I didn’t see a point to existing. I had constant panic and anxiety attacks. I thought I did all the right things, and yet, my life didn’t look at all how I planned. I had been depressed before but this was the first time I fell into a deep chronic depression that led to planning an attempted suicide. I remember sitting in my aunt’s kitchen thinking about taking a bottle of pills. I didn’t want to say I was depressed because black women are supposed to be strong and shit – aka get over it!

Being depressed meant pills, therapy, and a label. I feared being labeled and looked at as weak. Behind my persona of bubbly, happy, confident, and successful, I feared and people would see the real me – miserable, lonely, confused. It’s funny looking back now that fear of other people’s opinions kept me bound. Although I had planned my suicide in November 2014, I didn’t follow through with it and was forced to come to terms with my situation. I also knew I had to remove myself from my current environment to start over. So on February 9, 2015, I went into William’s Street Women’s Shelter in Brooklyn. I was officially declared homeless. This was my lowest point. Surprisingly, it was in the pit – my low place, my darkest hour – that I was able to shed any preconceived personas and be 100% real with myself. My choices, my mistakes, the good and the bad. I had to face them all AND I had to accept them all.

What was the experience of being in the shelter like?

The definition of the word shelter is “a roof or wall formed by locked shields; refuge; cover or protection from something.” What was I being protected from? It was more like an insane asylum in some ways than refuge. I had so many questions and no idea where to begin. Being in the shelter was extremely difficult. It’s exhausting mentally, physically, and emotionally. I was placed in a room with 11 other women from various walks of life – and I mean various. We all shared the same space. A bed, locker and your belongings with a thin wall to divide you if you were lucky enough to get a corner of the room. I was transferred to two different shelters within the 19 months I was homeless, each one with its own set of problems. From roommates, to dirty bathrooms, to rude and demeaning staff members. I had a total of 44 roommates! I never want a roommate again in my life.

I remember once asking my social worker for a pass – a piece of paper that allows me to return to my room early before 5pm – and she said “Go window shopping for four hours. It’s the holidays and the stores are open late.” I told her “When you get off of work early you can go home and lay down on your bed without being told when to do it. It’s cold outside and I’m asking to go to my room before my roommates get in to be able to lay down for 3 hours peacefully.” Needless to say, she rejected my request. As I left the office holding back tears I could only think about when this ordeal would end. Besides needing a pass to enter the building early, there were other procedures such as “The TSA check.” Whenever you enter the building, book bags, purses, coats, bags, food, etc. are checked and if it does not pass inspection you must throw it out or you cannot enter the building. You have to sign in and out for your bed or you lose it. There is a curfew at 10pm and you must leave the building regardless of your days off at 9am except on weekends. I had just received a teaching assistant position with a new job in the Summer of 2015 and my prospects for moving out was looking good.

Tell me about when you finally found your voice.

There was no “aha moment.” I can’t pinpoint a specific situation but I know that once I started telling people about my situation, the burden and shame started to come off. I was still depressed for most of 2015-2016 but I was doing the work to overcome that dark place. I was focused on my relationship with God and my church family became a second family to me. I credit my job as a teacher for playing a significant role. I kept thinking I have something to live for. I’m helping these students. I’m part of their development as humans. I also couldn’t come to terms with my students finding out their teacher had committed suicide and someone explaining what that means to them. Our staff preaches a motto of “GRIT” which means never give up. How could I preach a message to my scholars about never giving up when I wasn’t fully committed to living a life that exudes this quality? The hardest thing was waking up every day and commit to living when I wanted to die. My mother was also a source of strength I was able to rely on. She checked in on me daily and prayed for me.

Fast forward to August 2017. During one of my professional development sessions, a colleague informed me that they were homeless. I was shocked and also intrigued that they would confide in me. Why me? At this time only a selected few close friends/family knew I was homeless but most didn’t know my entire story. Should I say something about my own situation? What will they think of me? Once again the thoughts of what other people might think of me began to seize me with fear BUT this time I spoke up. I spoke up because people need to know that the face of homelessness is not only the man on the street begging or the lady in the subway car. It is primarily the young girl with her chemistry book in hand working to finish her college degree; it is the woman in the suit and high heels who is the secretary at an office building; it is the cashier at a home and craft store; it is the young man who is a security guard for an elementary school building. (These were not made up examples, these are women and men that I have met or known.) By looking at us, you wouldn’t be able to tell we were homeless yet we were. I also wanted my colleague to see there is light at the end of the tunnel. This difficult situation of living couch to couch will end. I am living proof of it.

There was a BIG event that lead to you realizing something different is happening in life? Can you tell us more?

In February of 2017, I entered a $50 raffle Madison Square Garden had advertised for a car. I knew at the time I couldn’t afford a car but even if I wasn’t selected the money would go towards a good cause. I entered and started receiving confirmation that I was going to win this car. I saw it everywhere. I heard God declare to my inner voice “It’s yours by faith.” Early March, I had applied to an apartment and found out I was rejected. On top of that, I was being transferred to another shelter. Discouraged, I went to Target for some retail therapy and received a phone call. Normally, I don’t answer calls from unknown numbers but I did. It was that phone call that marked a turn of events for my life. I found out I had won the car; A 2017 Lexus NX 200t!!!!! I screamed and shouted all around that Target. By the time I caught my breath, I was on a rug on the floor in the furniture section with tears streaming down my cheeks. I had always wanted a Lexus. I vowed to purchase one two years after I moved as a gift to myself. But God is so amazing that he saw fit to allow me to take a step of faith and enter a car raffle – that most people thought was a scam – and win my dream car. The denial of my apartment application, the tedious transfer at 12am to another shelter, my feelings of frustration and disappointment all dissipated. Although I was elated, I was still homeless. Here I am with a car worth more than my annual salary as a teacher’s assistant. It just didn’t make sense. But it would later. Shortly after winning, I was offered a full-time job as a teacher and moved into a one-bedroom apartment. What made it ironic was that the location of my apartment made it necessary to have a car.

Define “voice” and why it is important?

Voice is your power, your strength as an individual. It is unique as a fingerprint, yet uniformly ubiquitous. We all have a voice. Sometimes life will try to mute our voice as it did mine. We compare our voice to others; it’s too squeaky, too boisterous, doesn’t have me in the spotlight, not that important. All of those negative thoughts are an enemy to our voice. The thief of comparison steals our ability to successfully reach others with our gifts and talents. Our voice is otherwise known as our purpose and is essential to living out our purpose. My purpose? It is still being defined in some ways. However, I know I am chosen to live and not die prematurely. I know I am a visual artist who loves to inspire with the written word and dramatic arts. I know I have a passion for children who are destined to overcome the odds. I know God has strategically allowed me to be a voice for those depressed, suicidal, and feeling hopeless. He blessed me so that I can be a blessing, and encourage others in my situation. I now know my story matters, my life matters, and I have no reason to be ashamed of any part of it. Once you fully accept all aspects of your how, when, and what, you will be able to walk confidently and boldly. Eventually, I would love the opportunity to work on laws and regulations regarding the homeless in NYC. I have so many ideas and practical suggestions because the change starts from the inside with money management skills, access to therapy, and better paying jobs besides security guards and home health aides.

What advice do you have for someone trying to find their voice?

Preparing for this interview I stumbled upon another definition of shelter. It was derived from the Middle English version trymman and trum, meaning strengthen and firm. It was the 19 months in the shelter that would transform my place of weakness to that of strength; from despair to triumph. It is true that the darkest place, the lowest pit is where you find how stable your foundation is. If it’s weak, rebuild it. I did. I had to rebuild my foundation in God’s word and my foundation in who I was: my worth, my self-esteem. I needed to learn my voice is not dependent on a job title, a neighborhood, or a marital status. Those things might influence my voice but it is not my voice. My advice is to trust your journey. You are not looking for your voice; instead your voice, your purpose, is waiting to be realized by YOU. Once you fully realize it, you will live it out fearlessly.

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