Shanjula Harris woke up early every morning in the homeless shelter to help her children get ready for school. After she dropped them off, she came back, put on her nicest clothes and started walking.
“Every day, Lord knows, I’d walk up and down town and ask for work. And I did it every single day,” Harris said.
Harris had worked for years as a medical assistant at a Dallas hospital, but when she lost her job in 2009, she had nowhere to go. She and her three children – Deon, 14, Precious, 13, and Twquan, 12 – were forced to move into a shelter the day before Thanksgiving.
“Since I’m the only provider for my family, when I lost my job, it was very unusual,” Harris said. “I’ve never lost a job before. It was hard … nobody ever wants to be homeless.”
Harris’ story isn’t unusual. It is estimated that more than 79,000 people experience homelessness on any given day in Texas. About 85% of homeless families are headed by women – specifically single women with children.
“One thing I did [in the shelter] was I prayed a lot,” Harris said. “There were a lot of things I didn’t understand. And some days I didn’t feel like praying. But I knew I had to because I knew it wasn’t me by myself. I had my kids to think about, too.
“You hear mothers say, ‘I won’t eat to allow my children to eat.’ You know, you hear that, but to actually witness it or have to do it is totally different from just hearing it. I had some days like that.”
In March 2010, Harris received the break she needed: she was offered a job at Baylor University Dental School in Dallas. A few weeks later, she came to Buckner Family Pathways, a self-sufficiency program for single parent families seeking higher education, where she and her three children could live in their own apartment on the Buckner Children’s Home campus.
“I always wanted to live somewhere there were lots of trees. When I drove up and saw all those trees, I thought, this is beautiful,” she said.
Today, Harris is attending Kaplan University to obtain her degree in psychology while working full time. She hopes to go to medical school after she graduates and be a licensed psychiatrist. The opportunity to study and work full time was an answer to her prayers.
“Buckner Family Pathways has changed my life from having nothing to having something,” she said. “If I wasn’t here, there’s no way I’d be thinking about med school. There’s no way, I know that for a fact. It makes me feel good to know I have a goal set. I want my children to see me graduate, to say, ‘My mom did it, she was a single parent raising three children by herself. If she can do it, I can do it.’”
JoAnn Cole, senior director of campus and family programs for Buckner, said empowerment is the ultimate goal for Buckner’s seven family self-sufficiency programs across the state of Texas.
“When a mother learns that she is worth something, that she can provide for her family and her children see that transformation happen, lives are changed. Generations are changed for the better,” she said.
Buckner currently supports more than 130 single-parent families each year through self-sufficiency programs in Amarillo, Dallas, Lubbock, Lufkin, Midland and Conroe. A new Family Place program will open in Houston in 2011.
From highway to home
Lisa Wallace spent most of her adult life on the road. She was a truck driver for many years, but when she had her son James eight years ago, she quit. “I can’t have that kind of life and be a mom,” she said.
She moved from Texas to Portland, Oregon after her divorce, but an unexpected snow storm combined with car troubles caused Lisa to lose her job in early 2009.
“In Portland, if you’re two weeks late on your rent, they can legally evict you, which is what happened to me. I had to sell everything I owned.”
Lisa sold all her possessions to move back to Texas where she moved in with a family friend in Hawkins until she could afford to pay rent. Once she was back on her feet, she thought everything would be OK. But another layoff and health problems knocked her down again.
“I didn’t know what was wrong. It got to the point where I couldn’t move my arm. On New Year’s Day, I finally drove myself to the hospital and within three to four hours, I was in surgery,” she said.
Lisa’s gallbladder was infected and doctors had to remove it immediately. When she recovered, she found herself homeless once again. Her landlady helped find her a new place to live: an abandoned storage trailer behind one of her friend’s house.
“It was the end of January, really cold. We had no running water. The place was completely gutted. There was no kitchen, no sink, no stove, nothing like that,” Lisa said. “I had to bring gallons of water in every week. I had a camping shower that came in really handy.”
Bill Holmes, pastor at First Baptist Church in Hawkins, told Lisa about Buckner Family Place when she was in the hospital. She said this glimmer of hope is what kept her going through the dark times.
“I was depressed, but I had Buckner in my sights,” she said. “I knew that it would come to an end soon.”
In August 2010, Lisa and James moved into Family Place in Lufkin. She had sold her car to make student loan payments in order to be eligible for new school loans at Angelina College.
“I was really excited. It’s such a nice place. The housing is exceptional. James was extremely happy because he had his own room again. We had a shower; he loves to play in the bathtub. We could cook, had a real stove,” she said.
“Midge and Brenda [caseworkers at Buckner Family Place] are my heroes. I’ve never really had a female influence in my life that was positive, and being around these ladies, I realized there’s actually nice women in the world,” she said.
Lisa spends most of her time studying now, walking back and forth between Buckner Family Place and Angelina College, working towards her degree in radiation technology.
“I didn’t think school was ever going to be a possibility again. And the concept of being a full time student, that was incomprehensible. I’m excited, I’m looking forward to finishing and going out and being a new person.”
James is also learning the importance of school, she said.
“He sees me studying and wants to help me with my homework. Him seeing me go onto school, him being there to see me graduate, it’s going to have a huge impact on his life. He’s going to think that’s exactly what I have to do. I will make sure that it happens for him.”
Michelle Swink found herself trapped in a whirlpool in Aspermont, Texas. She was depressed, using drugs and going nowhere fast when she found out she was pregnant at the age of 19.
“I went down a tough road. It’s sad to admit what was important about my life then, but God blessed me with Wyatt. Me being pregnant with Wyatt was unfortunately a wake-up call,” she said.
She tried single parenting for a while, but things continued to spin in place. One day, her grandparents told her about a program in Lufkin called Buckner Family Place.
“It was a dream come true,” she said. “It changed my life by putting me on the path I needed to be on.”
Since moving into Family Place, Swink has finished her associate’s degree at Angelina College and is currently pursuing her bachelor’s degree in elementary education at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas. She spends most of her free time studying and playing games with her 3-year-old son Wyatt.
“The most important thing is our kids get to watch us cross the stage when we graduate from college,” she said. “My motivation comes from seeing Wyatt go to school. I want a better life for myself and my son.”
Swink said she’s learned the importance of creating a “happy home” for her family, giving her new strategies and coping skills to overcome bad habits.
“Brenda, Midge and Holly are outstanding people, you can call them anytime,” she said. “They help you shape your life for the better.
“My whole life I’ve been a caterpillar. Through the Buckner program, I’ve become a butterfly,” she said.
To learn more about the ways you can support single mothers and their children through Buckner transition programs like Family Place and Family Pathways, call 214-758-8000.
*Stats from the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients projections