"Homelessness is losing hope. It's trying and trying and failing. Life has beaten you down to your knees and says stay down. And you do, and then you accept this as your new normal."
The morning dew dances on blades of grass outside before the sweltering Texas sun presents its face to the world. A young girl nestled under the covers rubs her eyes open. She swings out of bed and stumbles into the living room to catch the sweet chimes of a little red trolley and the soothing voice of Mr. Rogers greeting her from beside King Friday’s castle. The castle is foreboding yet regal, playful yet mysterious—somewhat analogous to her inner and outer world. It’s hours before she has to arrive at school, and this routine allows her the freedom and stillness to imagine life as a child would—full of potential and unconditional love. But at what point does a castle become a prison?
Shanelle Tennyson, a current college student, knows a thing or two about that. Shanelle recalls this memory of watching Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood with happiness, for it was one of her favorite shows as a child. Reflecting on the castle analogy, she has this to say: “School was my castle because it felt like the safest place for me. The teachers were my protectors, like knights. I excelled in school, and this made my dad happy–he was my hero.”
In fact, as she grew older, Shanelle “found her tribe” at Yvonne A. Ewell Townview Magnet Center (Townview), a three-story building campus that houses six independent magnet high schools in the Dallas Independent School District. Townview was important to Shanelle because “it was the highest rated and best school in Texas,” and she “made it into the School of Science and Engineering (SEM) with a 3.0/3.8 GPA.” Additionally, the school band was the top band in the state and Shanelle earned (or performed) her way into a seat. This was Shanelle’s Super-Mario-16-bit-fireworks-as-she-slid-down-the-flagpole castle—a place she felt vindicated and seen. Her academic accomplishment felt nothing less than victorious: “No one could call me stupid if I got into this school.” A comment made all the more poignant after learning that, while growing up, her mother would tell her, “You have nothing to say and nothing you say is going to make a difference.”
Shanelle’s mother was unlike those who have been endeared to audiences through popular characters like Florida Evans from Good Times or Carol Brady from The Brady Bunch. However, she did perform several roles throughout Shanelle’s childhood and was a catalyst for her in many ways: she ignited her love of reading, instilled in her the value of education, and yet robbed her of a nurturing childhood. You see, there was a version of her mother who supported Shanelle’s education, taught her to read by the time she was three years old, and who was an artist ready to paint anything within a ten-foot radius (if properly equipped). Then, there was the racist woman who referred to her own child as a “tar baby” (Shanelle’s mother is white and her father is black) and would regularly break combs and hairbrushes in her curls, drag her across the house by her hair, banish her to the nearest closet, and would verbally and physically abuse her, like making her take a bath in water too hot because “she stank.” At other times, Shanelle may have come home to a “party animal.” A woman who loved the B52’s, U2, Fleetwood Mac, and, as Shanelle recalls, “who, when I was in middle school and we were destitute, would borrow money and beg for rides so I could go with my friends to the skating rink or to school dances. She wanted me to enjoy life in some sense. She was great, but not “mom material.”’ After years of shuffling about, trying to keep afoot in this disorienting dance with extremes—abuse and love; neglect and attention; confusion and hope—Shanelle discovered that her mother had dissociative identity disorder, formerly known as multiple personality disorder. After several years of psychiatric evaluations and misdiagnoses, Shanelle recalls erupting into tears at the news of her mother’s condition. She recounts her father putting the phone on speaker so Shanelle and her family could hear the news and explains, “The relief of validation was so strong, I just cried. We all cried.”
As though this isn’t enough turmoil for one person to experience in a lifetime, at age thirteen, Shanelle’s life was further altered. On Christmas morning, she sat down to watch Disney’s Pocahontas, and all she remembers is the rhythmic music from the opening credits as everything else fades to black. Shanelle began to have seizures—the beginning of a condition that would steal from her time, memory, and opportunities to thrive. As she grew into a young adult, Shanelle describes her castle as being “shuttered and fortified while war waged outside of its walls.” You could imagine this castle with its windows broken, arrows flying into the turrets, and an angry mob wielding torches and pitchforks as Shanelle settles into the inner walls, only to find comfort in her husband, who she would later describe as an “evil mastermind.”
It took her divorce from her manipulative husband for Shanelle to realize what she was willing to do for herself. She reflects that “[this experience] taught me exactly what I thought of myself: that I was a tool to be used. However, I can be a tool for the Divine.” Now Shanelle is more aware of the toll from perpetually existing in survival mode and how it impacted all parts of her well-being: physical, financial, and emotional. She began to ask herself, what am I doing with my life? She divulged that she had been operating in a space where she would “juggle who to pander to and who to pay off” and had several people in her orbit “who wouldn’t take anything less than everything.”
On the heels of this revelation, Shanelle began to have six to eight seizures a day, which is more than triple the amount that can cause severe brain damage and even death. She was then involved in a serious car crash and spent an entire year recovering. Shanelle had this to say about the experience: “Last year (what year would this have been?) I spent the whole of the year recuperating from a car accident. I was able to work. My body was bent, not broken, but oh, I hurt. I had moved out from my boyfriend’s home into my own apartment. I wanted, nay, needed to know what it was like to be on my own at least once in my life. Sometimes it was glorious but other times it was miserable. I had my full-time job and three alternate streams of income, and I almost never slept. That is what killed me—the lack of sleep. Then the bottom fell out, and I was having seizures six to seven times a day. I lost my job. My boyfriend left. And I wound up in a mental hospital for two weeks against my will (not that I had much will left). In February, I spent the last of my pennies to put all my life in a storage facility and take a place with some elderly friends of mine who offered me a bed and a safe place to sleep. They could watch me and call emergency services if I needed it.”
Once she began to regain her strength, Shanelle began to vigorously search for jobs. Nothing looked promising until she was offered a six-figure job from an insurance company only to have the offer rescinded after making clear her educational aspirations to return to and finish college—a dream she had been holding onto for over ten years. Subsequently, she did land a job in retail but the pay was inadequate, and she had little support. Shortly thereafter, COVID-19 began to spread worldwide and 2020 arrived with a bang, or, as Shanelle calls it, “the year the world shut down.” Shanelle once again became homeless during a time that lock-downs pervaded communities and people became enemies of each other simply for breathing. Shanelle juggled sleeping in the back of her SUV and between three houses while trying to find solid ground in school amid mounting health concerns. Exacerbating matters, the onset of COVID-19 forced all learning into a digital space, pressing her to secure spotty wi-fi, learn new technologies, and become her primary teacher.
Fast forward to present day, Shanelle is now a mother to a baby boy and is reflective as she considers what being a mother means in light of her childhood experience. Looking toward her future and what there is still left to build—what joy awaits, what heartache may befall her, and how she will recover—Shanelle is stubbornly hopeful: “We do our best today in the hope that we will be graced with the same opportunity tomorrow.” As Shanelle reflects on the meaning of her name, which translates to “channel” or “connector,” and its connection to her purpose and story, she says this: “I feel it is my purpose to help people get from one point to another.”
We feel that Shanelle’s story is exactly that—a tool to connect that unique element within us all on this earthly journey: humanity. We invite you to compassionately explore Shanelle’s story in more depth through our virtual space and look forward to sharing it with you through in-person events.