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Homelessness and Its Many Faces: Sherial’s Story

By | Feb 3, 2015

sherial oneSherial twoSherial 3 I met Sherial in the spring of 2012. I was already halfway through my graduate program and only working part time, so that I could finish up school. With bills quickly mounting, a friend brought up the idea of moving in with a roommate. None of my friends at the time were in the market for roommates, so I decided to go the Craigslist route.

I found Sherial’s listing and went over to see her apartment that day. The apartment was clean, airy, and bright. She took great pride in decorating and making it feel like home.

Sherial was sweet, funny, and humble. Sherial was an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher and had taught for many years in the U.S. and abroad. She also had a quirky side. Her love of Michael Jackson was made visible through the countless posters, CDs, and books that were strategically placed throughout the apartment. Sherial was notorious for dressing up as Michael Jackson every Halloween, which she surprisingly pulled off (see photo above). She was also a talented actress and singer. In fact, the same month that I moved in, Sherial received the prestigious Star Project award from NBC Universal and the American Black Film Festival (ABFF).

In our society many of us believe that bad things, particularly homelessness, happen to “ordinary” people. We think that homelessness only befalls those that are not smart enough, beautiful enough, and/or kind enough. We dehumanize those in need and create stereotypes of the “dirty bum” in the corner—who drinks or smokes his life away.

I had the opportunity to recently interview Sherial about her childhood experiences with homelessness. Every person has a story that teaches us something about others and ourselves. Here is Sherial’s story.

The Early Years

birth parents

Sherial and her birth parents.

Sherial was born in the fall of 1982 in a yellow cottage behind a church in Pasadena, California. Although it was recently torn down—the church had been a part of the family for many generations. Sherial’s grandmother and grandfather were both preachers. She grew up seeing strong women in her family and found solace and strength through the church.

Sherial’s parents met in Northern California. Her father was a pre-law student at UC Berkeley who had been awarded numerous academic and football scholarships. During his time at Cal, Sherial’s father experienced a lot of racism, such as professors telling him he was going to fail out and other players putting shards of glass on the shower floor. Despite these stressors, her dad excelled academically in his pre-law major.

Sherial’s father met her mother while working as a janitor in her building because he was trying to make extra money for school. Her mother was of Italian descent and made amazing Italian food. Her cooking initially drew him in and they were together for many years. Sherial’s mom was legally blind. She was educated at the braille institute but it was still hard for her to secure consistent employment.

Life Takes a Turn

Both of Sherial’s parents took on a free-spirited approach to life. They lived in the moment. However, there was still a sense of stability and direction in their lives because her father was on the road to becoming a lawyer.

Life significantly changed when Sherial was a toddler. Her grandfather on her father’s side was murdered. Sherial’s father was very close to him because he had been his role model. There was speculation that a family member had killed his father. This was never proven but it made Sherial’s dad extremely paranoid. He cut himself off from his family, had a mental breakdown, and was never the same again.

Eventually, her father dropped out of Berkeley and came back to Southern California with his children and the mother of his children. He couldn’t hold down a job because he didn’t like to be told what to do—so he took on odd jobs like selling encyclopedias. Sherial shared, “It was very much like the movie Pursuit of Happyness but without the success.”

Because her mother was blind and had eight children, she did not work. According to Sherial, her mother (like her father) lived in the moment and did not think about the practicalities of life. Although she was affectionate and loving towards all of her children, Sherial’s mother was prone to depression and suicidal tendencies.

Sherial did not consistently attend school because her father felt the education system was biased towards those in power. He preferred taking his children to libraries and taught Sherial and her seven siblings how to read by the age of four. Her father felt it was important for his family to be well-read and take learning into their own hands.

According to Sherial, when her third youngest sister was born, their lives changed for the worse because her father’s paranoia became more severe. They began squatting in a beautiful spacious house by a lake in Arcadia, California. When Sherial was six years old, her family was kicked out of the house they had been squatting in and began staying at a motel in Pasadena. Her father could not afford to pay for the room. The motel eventually caught on. The police were called and they were going to arrest him, but Sherial was with him when this happened. She was crying and frightened; the police let her father go with a warning.

Family’s First Separation

Sherial and siblings

Sherial, some of her siblings, and her birth mother.

A great deal of Sherial’s early childhood was spent hungry. Her dad didn’t accept handouts because “of his pride.” Rather, he dug in trashcans, stole food from Chucky Cheese, or would pay for one person at Souplantation to feed a family of ten.

A couple of months later, on Halloween, the police came to the door of where Sherial’s family was temporarily staying. Her mother looked sad and had been wiping away tears all day. Six-year old Sherial opened the door and saw the police. She said to them, “You’re not in costume. You’re not here for trick or treat?”

Sherial soon realized what was happening. She and the rest of her siblings were going to be taken away from their parents, because they were living in unsafe conditions. Sherial clearly remembered “grabbing her mom’s arm really hard because [she] thought that if she held on tight enough and long enough, it would all go away.”

She was placed in a group home for a month or two. Her parents had to change their living situation to get their kids back. They gutted the church and cleaned it up as much as possible. The church still was not clean enough; there were fleas and the children caught lice a couple of months later.

Sherial recalls social workers coming over to check if they had food and trying to cover for her parents, so she wouldn’t be taken away. She had noticed that the social worker did not touch the food but only looked around. She went with her dad to look for empty boxes and cans of food to set them out, so the social worker would think they had food. The social worker fell for it.

Her dad became paranoid that the children would be taken away again, so they began to move every month or so—to Van Nuys, Moreno Valley, Perris, Arcadia, and Pasadena and all over Northern California. They stayed with friends and family who “eventually got sick of them.”

Sherial spent most of her childhood squatting in nice houses, living in hotels, motels, vans, and even a U-Haul truck. These spaces were often unsafe for young children. All of the kids got burns, broken bones, and one was even run over by a car during those years due to their parent’s lack of supervision.

This was one of the reasons the children did not go to school for more than a couple of weeks at a time—her parents did not want the authorities to take the children away. Sherial and three of her sisters had been born in the cottage behind her family’s church. Her other sister was born in the parking lot near a hospital. As a result, none of the sisters had birth certificates for a long time—which made them hard to track, as they frequently moved across different towns and cities.

A Second Separation

When she was about eight years old, Sherial and her sister ended up in a group home again. Her father had told them to meet him at a church gathering. It was raining and she and her six-year old sister were instructed to get there on their own. Her younger sister got tired of walking, so Sherial perched her on top of an adult-sized bike to let her rest and pushed the bike towards their destination, but it proved to be quite difficult. They were both crying out of frustration and fatigue. The neighbors eventually caught on and called the authorities.

Once again, the siblings were separated. This time Sherial was placed in a group home called MacLaren Hall in El Monte, California. She remembers Michael Jackson visited when she was there because he had donated money to the group home. It was one of the most special days of her life. He was kind and respectful to everyone. However, most days at the group home were quite depressing. Sherial recalls it felt more like a prison. It was an asylum-like children’s facility fenced with barbed wire and staffed by armed guards.

She prayed every day and read to keep her sanity.  One day, her mom came to pick up Sherial’s baby sister. It broke Sherial’s heart that her mother hadn’t come for all of them. At first, she deeply struggled with the loss of her mother; then, she became numb.

The situation at the group home worsened. One day, a ten-year old boy who was notoriously promiscuous informed her that she was his new girlfriend and she would need to start showing it. Sherial prayed very hard that night to be taken away from the group home. The following day, Sherial’s wishes were answered.

Life Changes Once Again

Sherial was told that she was leaving the group home. However, she was not reunited with her parents. Her father’s sister lived with her husband in Orange County. They adopted Sherial and her third oldest sister first. Her adoptive parents wanted the children to have a stable life because they knew how chaotic their lives had been up until that point.

When she first moved in, the first thing Sherial noticed was that her adoptive parents had matching silverware. She had never lived in a place with matching silverware. Her adoptive father was an aircraft engineer and a reverend. Her adoptive mother (and biological aunt) was a successful insurance specialist.

birth father

Sherial and her birth father (left); Sherial’s adoptive father (right)

In the first couple of years, Sherial and only one of her sisters lived together with their adoptive family. It was a culture shock for them because her adoptive parents lived in an affluent area with little-to-no diversity. At that time, two of her sisters went to Northern California with their birth father and were living in a shack. They were taken from him when the police discovered their living conditions and placed in a loving foster home in a mostly African American neighborhood.

After a couple of years, Sherial’s adoptive parents also adopted these two sisters. The four sisters had to reintroduce themselves to one another because they had lived very different lives over those years. Sherial and her sisters felt conflicted during that time because they had to testify in court against their birth parents, so that the adoption could go through. Even though she would always love her birth parents, she did not want to live a life that was characterized by hunger and the uncertainty of where to find shelter.

Eventually the rest of her siblings were adopted too. All of the children, except one older half-brother (who was adopted but ran away soon after, “to escape their adoptive parents’ strict rules and be with their birth mom”) were now under the same roof. The fact that they were provided with the opportunity to all live in the same home is very rare for children that have been placed in foster care.

When Sherial and her one sister first moved in with her adoptive parents, they quickly noticed that they were nowhere near grade-level in school. This is because Sherial had not attended school from first to fifth grade (with the exception of a couple of weeks here and there). Although she did not have formal schooling, Sherial was an avid reader. She had even read Tar Baby before the age of ten. Books took her away from her worries; she had a deep love of literature.

However, because she was so behind in other academic subjects, her adoptive parents bought school desks and homeschooled them for a year. Sherial and her sister had a strict schedule of listening to educational tapes and being tutored by their parents. By the end of the year, they both consistently earned straight A’s rather than F’s.

Sherial and her siblings received a lot of love from their adoptive parents. Her adoptive mother taught the children sewing and crafts. Their adoptive father knew how to help the kids develop their innate talents (such as Sherial’s gift of singing and acting). The children also were given privileges including going to private school, living in a safe neighborhood, and having consistent routines.

Sherial and her sisters kept in touch and still are in contact with their birth parents. In hindsight, they appreciate their creativity, affection, and the life lessons they learned during their time growing up with them.

Reflections on Homelessness

Sherial and students lunches

Sherial and her students preparing lunches for the homeless.

When asked if she still connects to homeless issues—Sherial shared that she tries to force herself to think of homelessness as her past. She mentioned that she heard an interview with Will Smith and he said he has never lost the fear of being broke. She too has never lost the fear that you can always “go back to being homeless.” Sometimes Sherial will see a homeless person in the street and relate to how he or she will struggle to find a place to sleep that night. Sherial regularly exposes her ESL students to the homeless plight by doing bi-monthly homeless feeding field trips.

However, Sherial strongly believes that feeding the homeless and giving them emergency shelter is not a sustainable solution. Her father—a brilliant and talented man that came from a good family—is still homeless. Sherial posited, “Homelessness is not about laziness. There needs to be more support for people who struggle with mental illness. As a society, we don’t want to help people with schizophrenia. We don’t see it as a priority. It’s not a priority like cancer. You don’t think, ‘let me feed someone with schizophrenia or drug addiction.’ We need to change this thinking in our society.”

When asked how being homeless has or still impacts her life, Sherial responded, “I have deep empathy for homeless families because kids are affected. Many become invisible. Like me, many aren’t in the books because they have no birth certificates. As a child, when people don’t know you exist, you can die. The fear is debilitating. It feels as though someone is sitting on your chest and you cannot breathe.”

She continued, “On the negative side, [homelessness] cost me a lot of confidence. I felt like I was not good enough and the world was against me. I was lucky because my parents poured love and confidence into me.” For a long time, Sherial believed that “poverty was a way of life and something to be accepted.” Homelessness and poverty “cost her many years of education.” Although, she has lived her life to the utmost of her ability, she wonders aloud, “I was gifted but what more could I have done?”

Sherial also reflected, “My experiences with homelessness taught me greater humility, resourcefulness, and love.” She learned to see the world with a broader lens and that there are many faces that represent the homeless: “Anyone can be homeless. Anyone can be there. My dad is a genius. My mom is a great person who is loving and affectionate with her children. But anyone can be homeless. Homelessness is like a prison without the keys. Society needs to care enough to come up with those keys.”

2 Comments

  1. Roderick
    Posted Feb 5, 2015 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    An amazing story about a strong, intelligent and beautiful woman; and how she and her family over came their circumstances to become a successful family unit.

  2. Posted Dec 21, 2015 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    Author – Karisa Peer is a UCLA graduate with a Ph.D. in Education (Urban Schooling). Karisa’s multi-faceted career spans non-profit program management, fundraising, community outreach, international volunteering, qualitative research, copyediting, and over a decade of teaching from preschool to university levels. Her work and research have always focused on challenging the status quo and improving the lives of people living in marginalized communities. She is currently a Grants Associate with People Assisting the Homeless (PATH).