This post was originally published on Sacramento Observer

By Genoa Barrow

Women’s Empowerment, a nationally-recognized resource for locals experiencing homelessness, is set to graduate its latest group of participants on September 29.

When Shanitra Brown walks across the stage, she’ll be supported by her four children. Her cheering section ranges in age from four to 12 years old. The oldest, who she had fresh out of high school, just started seventh grade. Brown gets teary-eyed thinking about the journey they’ve all been on over the last two years.

“I’m such a big baby when it comes to my kids,” shared Brown, 31.

The family moved to Sacramento from Ohio in the summer of 2020, four months into the coronavirus pandemic. Her grandfather lived locally and she also had a friend in town whom she’d previously lived with back in Ohio. Brown initially refused to come, arguing that California was “too expensive” a place to live. She eventually changed her mind, but learned just how true her earlier assessment was when she found herself homeless.

“We sold everything to get here,” Brown said. “We literally had clothes and a small U-Haul trailer that we drove here with a Lincoln MKX with four kids. That’s all we had.”

The “we” included a fiance’. The couple struggled to find work that would pay the bills and work schedules they could align with limited childcare options. 

The responsibilities of providing for a ready-made family in the Golden State proved to be too much for the fiance’. They arrived in July and by October, he was on a plane back to Ohio. In November 2020, the aunt she’d been staying with let it be known that she was moving.

“She was just like, ‘I don’t know what you’re going to do, but at the beginning of the year, we’re moving.”

The aunt, she says, told her to “figure it out.” Back in Ohio, Brown paid $900 a month for a three bedroom apartment. Most of the places in Sacramento cost significantly more for considerably less space. Most also require applicants to earn three times the rent, which they didn’t have. The fiance’ made $700 from his job, she says, and it wasn’t enough.

“We would have had to come up with $3,500 at the minimum for a two bedroom,” she explained.

Brown had some knowledge of programs back in Ohio and assumed there’d be similar help available locally. She got a 16-day hotel voucher from the Department of Health and Human Assistance. It gave them a place to stay temporarily, but two weeks wasn’t much in terms of finding a long-term solution. When she left the hotel, she still didn’t know what she’d do. She tried to go back to where they’d been living.

“The atmosphere just wasn’t safe, so then I kind of bounced back and forth to coworkers, because I ended up getting a job at Walmart,” Brown said.

That didn’t last long either.

“I started getting ‘Oh, don’t rush to come back’ or if I let them know we were doing some family event and wouldn’t be coming back that night, they’d say, ‘OK, take your time’ or ‘don’t hurry back.’ My kids started to pick up on that and then they’d say, ‘well, I don’t want to go back there,’ so at that point, I just said, ‘I’m in my car.’

Brown says she’d rather be in a car than allow anyone to make her children feel as if they’re less than or that they are a burden. Depending on the area they were in, the young mother learned where she could park.

“We’d stop at Walmart or if there was a 24-hour gas station, we’d kind of find the corner with less light. We started finding little apartment buildings that had parking spots that were set off from the apartments. We’d do that and I’d put up the window covers so it looked like someone was just keeping their car cool from the heat,” Brown recalled.

Someone told her about the 211 resource in April. In May, she started going to Maryhouse, a daytime shelter for women and children run by Loaves and Fishes. There she learned about Women’s Empowerment. It was recommended to her as a “good fit,” but Brown was hesitant, having been disappointed by other programs where she’d gone through all the required steps, only to be told they couldn’t help her.

“This was pretty much my breaking point.” she said. “When I came to orientation, I was listening to what they were saying and it was going in one ear and kind of going out the other. I was listening, but I’m like, we’ll see what it does, what’s going to happen.”

Brown was also initially hesitant to speak her truth, for fear of getting her children taken away.

I just want them to know that anything is possible. Whatever you set your mind to, you can do it and you’re going to do it. You’re capable of anything and no one, I repeat no one can tell you that you can’t.

Shanitra Brown

Living in a car with four children has been rough, but Brown found places to shower and free things to do as a family. She also found friends and support among other homeless mothers who brought their children to summer programs hosted by Loaves and Fishes’ Mustard Seed school for homeless children.

“I still talk to some of those young ladies,” Brown shared.

Women’s Empowerment helped her get sober and learn to stop masking her issues. The family recently secured a spot at a local Next Move shelter. While they had the normal sibling scrapes and scuffles, the children, she says, were well behaved for the most part while living in such close quarters of their car. She was happy, however, to see their excitement at having “their own space and their own beds” again. 

Brown’s spirits have also been lifted while there. “They applaud me every time I walk into the shelter because they tell me, ‘your kids are so well put together and my kids don’t understand what that means to me because every day I fight for them and that means a lot to know that someone else can see how hard I work.”

The hard work isn’t over. Brown looks to transition into permanent housing soon. She also plans to enroll at Sacramento City College where she’ll study early childhood education en route to becoming a school social worker. She ultimately wants to create a Women’s empowerment-type program of her own and help others with similar struggles.

Whatever she does, Brown knows her children are watching how she moves.

“I just want them to know that anything is possible,” she said. “Whatever you set your mind to, you can do it and you’re going to do it. You’re capable of anything and no one, I repeat no one can tell you that you can’t.”

The upcoming graduation gala at the California Railroad Museum is Women’s Empowerment’s largest fundraiser of the year. The event raises a fifth of the organization’s budget to empower women experiencing homelessness to secure employment and safe homes for their families.

The graduation is also a time to celebrate the bright futures that lay ahead, says Executive Director Lisa Culp. “We are excited to come together once again with our steadfast community here in Sacramento to ensure that more women can rise from homelessness in the face of a prolonged pandemic and housing crisis.”

To purchase tickets, sponsor a graduate to attend, or purchase virtual tickets, visit Womens-Empowerment.org

EDITOR’S NOTE: Continue to read The OBSERVER this month as we share more stories of local women bouncing back from homelessness with the help of the Women’s Empowerment program.

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