The 22 students in Shonda’s online class on practicing diversity in human services could see her face on their computer screens hundreds of miles away.
They could see that her headset pulled back their instructor’s black, curly hair, and they could see her sigh at some of their comments.
And if the students looked closely, they might even have made out the logo on the small sign behind her for N Street Village, a nonprofit that provides housing, shelter and supportive services for women at five locations in D.C.
But what they couldn’t see were the metal detector and three security guards at the building’s front door. Or the woman sitting forlornly on the steps outside with a suitcase in the dark.
As far as Shonda knows, none of her students have figured out that she’s been teaching the class from the basement of the Patricia Handy Place for Women in D.C.’s Chinatown. Or that since she became homeless in May, she’s been sleeping in one of the 12 bunk beds in a room upstairs.
She’s been looking for a more permanent place to live, but finding one that’s accessible for the wheelchair she has used since she was 5 — and is also close enough to Metro so she can get around easily — has been challenging.
Shonda doesn’t look homeless — especially not with a copy of “Harvard Business Review: Manager’s Handbook” on her lap as she heads on her motorized wheelchair to take the Red Line to the Tenleytown public library, where she grades papers. Even her school doesn’t know she’s leading the class from the basement of a homeless shelter. Her life really isn’t the school’s business, she said.
Once, a student mentioned in class that he’d once been homeless. “I can relate,” said Shonda, not letting on that she was relating right then and there.
There is no reason for any of her students to suspect what’s been going on in her life, any more than there would have been for a manager at Metro’s Judiciary Square station to understand why the little bit of help he gave her one morning around the holidays seemed to mean so much to her.
But part of why Shonda let herself be talked into having a reporter watch her teach was to make the point there is no type of person who ends up at a woman’s shelter. At Patricia Handy, there are older women who talk about their grandchildren, and much younger women.
And there is at least one college instructor, whose last name we agreed not to use because her school doesn’t know she’s working from a homeless shelter.
All this began when Shonda had a job through the Department of Veterans Affairs helping veterans find jobs and live independently. Somewhat burned out, she’d gone to work for a nonprofit that helps people with disabilities. But she thought her boss there was racist.
She was making extra money doing some consulting to help nonprofits improve their management. So she left her job to pursue that. But the contracts ended and not enough new ones came in to cover her rent. Other promising job prospects fell through. One day she came home to find an eviction notice.
There have been tough times since then. But one lesson she wants to pass along is that you never know what a kind gesture can mean to others.
One day around the holidays, she was heading back to the shelter after grading papers when her fare card wouldn’t work as she tried to exit the Gallery Place station. The station manager told her to just go through the emergency gate.
The next morning, her fare card again didn’t work as she tried to enter at Judiciary Square. A fare gate message told her to go see the station manager. But the manager’s booth is on the mezzanine level, up an escalator that she couldn’t navigate. So she called the manager on the intercom.
A tall man in a WMATA uniform and a beard came down to her, took the card back up the escalator to his booth, did something to fix it, and brought it back.
It’s the kind of thing station managers do all the time, and that’s probably how he saw it. But when Shonda got back to the shelter, she felt compelled to get on Twitter to praise him and say, “Thank you.”
Small thing, maybe. But it’s been a rough year.
“Any kindness my way,” she said, “I appreciate.”
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