In May 2019, Joyelle Powell sat her 7-year-old daughter down and asked her what she needed.
When Zaidie told her she wanted to move out of the home she lived in with her mom and grandparents, Powell immediately started packing their bags.
“I was nervous and scared. But I just want what’s best for my daughter,” Powell — now 36 — told BK Reader.
The single mom didn’t know where they would go, but she knew it was the right thing to do. The pair had been living in a difficult situation with Powell’s parents on Long Island for two years.
Powell said she’d always had a fraught relationship with her parents. But after the death of a beloved uncle in the family, tension in the household — fueled by alcohol and mental health issues — got worse.
That night, the pair got in their car and drove away. The move would mark the start of a 13-month journey through New York City’s homelessness system.
All the while, Powell was either studying, or working as an NYC public school teacher in Williamsburg, while keeping her homelessness private.
Powell is sharing her story now to shed light on the lives of homeless parents and children living in New York, and to reduce the stigma associated with homelessness.
“Anyone could go through this situation,” she said. “We need to uplift each other— that’s the only way we’re going to be able to survive and be successful.”
The first days
Powell and her daughter pulled up to an unmarked building, where they waited, along with many others, to speak with a case manager. It was too late to process them into a shelter. So the pair were given a pair of clean sheets and told to stay the night at the facility.
It was a rough first night. Powell said the door was unlocked, the room very cold, and there was no shower curtain.
“My daughter was scared, but I had to act like this was completely normal, like, ‘I’m not scared if someone comes in, go to sleep. Oh, it’s cold? I know. Don’t worry.'”
The pair were transferred to their new temporary home at a shelter in the Bronx the next day. Outside, a woman and a man were drunk, fist-fighting.
As soon as she arrived, she told herself she wasn’t going to be there for long. For months, she resisted buying curtains, or decorating the room.
“I felt like, ‘I’m in grad school, why am I homeless?’ But days turned into weeks that turned into months, and we ended up being there a little over a year,” Powell said.
After three months, Powell bought curtains, and soon after, made the room a home by prioritizing having fresh flowers, and setting up an area to pray.
Studying, working and schooling from the shelter
When Powell became homeless, she’d just graduated with her Masters of Science in Education. She found a free Brooklyn summer camp to enroll Zaidie in, and spent the next couple of months in internet cafes during the days, studying for her teacher’s license.
After passing her license, she started searching for a job. When Zaidie wasn’t in camp, Powell said she tried to keep them both busy and active with free activities: from walking around Brooklyn, to visiting museums and libraries, to doing free dance classes. She tried to stay away from the shelter until it was time to come in at night. The curfew was 9:00pm.
“I still wanted my daughter to feel like she had a childhood,” she said.
Soon, Powell managed to land a job at the Williamsburg High School of Arts and Technology, in her speciality area of ESL.
Despite the shelter being in the West Bronx, Powell envisioned a life for her and Zaidie living and working in Brooklyn. She registered Zaidie at a public school in Clinton Hill, which she’d heard was “great ” with a ” warm community.”
She was right. After meeting Zaidie and hearing Powell’s story, the school agreed to have her.
It also agreed for Zaidie to be dropped off to school early, as Powell herself needed to get from Clinton Hill to Williamsburg for the start of her school day.
Behind the scenes, Powell and Zaidie were leaving the shelter around 4:30am every school day to catch a bus and two trains to get to school by 7:20am, she said, after having to sell the car due to the expensive insurance.
Powell gets emotional talking about the kindness the school showed her during that time. “They saw how hard I was trying to move out and work,” she said.
“They knew that this woman is here every day, in the dark, standing outside the school building. I wouldn’t have been able to finish my first year teaching without their help.”
Powell and Zaidie faced new issues when the pandemic struck.
As advocates pointed out, City shelters were desperately lacking in WiFi, which Zaidie and Powell both now urgently needed for remote learning.
Powell tried to arrange internet at the shelter herself, but was told it wasn’t allowed. She then had to wait two weeks for the Department of Education to send a tablet with WiFi. In the meantime, she had to open up about her situation.
“I had to tell my principal, I’m homeless, I don’t have internet. I am going to log in from my phone but my daughter has to go to school too.”
They pair were also stuck in the shelter all the time, now, which Powell worried about. They passed the time by doing free online dance classes and making TikToks. When the dance company Fusha Dance started holding dance sessions in Fort Greene Park, Powell — a dancer — and Zaidie starting attending.
The road out
Meanwhile, Powell was entrusting a case manager to work on finding her and Zaidie a road out of the shelter. She said case managers have a lot of power over your future, and can slow down or speed up the process, and she felt her process had slowed to a stop.
Powell tried to find apartments herself, but was turned away multiple times when landlords realized she was a single mother with only one income, or that she was going to be paying for the first year of rent with a grant from the Department of Homeless Services.
Frustrated, she sent an email to those who might be able to help, including the shelter director, with her concerns. “I said, I work for the city just like you. And I’m homeless and I’ve been a teacher for a year. I don’t understand, I’m trying everything.”
Within a couple of weeks of taking on her case, the shelter director phoned and said she had a couple of apartments for Powell and Zaidie. Powell was sent the lease and signed it, without having seen the place. By June 1, 2020, Zaidie and Powell were in their own “beautiful” apartment.
“I was so appreciative of getting out, I felt like, I really endured a lot, now I’m getting relief,” she said. “I don’t have to be this tough, tough person 24/7. It was a wonderful feeling.”
It took Powell months to undo the programming she learned from living at the shelter. After a year of adhering to a 9:00pm curfew, she still felt she needed to be home by night, and tell the doorman when she was going out and when she would return.
Powell said staying embedded with her church community, and creating a dedicated prayer space in her shelter room were some of the most important things to keep her mental health up. She also recommended staying active, staying out of any shelter “drama,” and making use of free activities in the city.
“During the time of being in the shelter I felt at first really angry and disappointed and embarrassed. I felt sad, too, because I was like, I love my family, but I literally can’t be there right now because it’s damaging emotionally my child and has been damaging me for a long time.”
In terms of advice for the City, she would like to see shelters improved with more social and emotional training for case managers dealing with people in vulnerable situations. She’d also like to see more empowering meetings for residents of the shelter.
Right now, Powell’s working on a children’s book dedicated to those experiencing homelessness. Her advice for parents in the system right now is to keep a goal of getting out of the shelter, be polite (as people will look down on you), and try to stay around positive people.
“Remain faithful and stay in prayer. when others treat you or speak of you negatively, remember this is only a reflection of themselves, not you. Stay focused on your goals and what you want to accomplish.”
She’s now happy to say her daughter has been reconnecting with her grandparents, and that some of the family’s generational issues seem to be healing.
“I know that they love me, it’s just they’re dealing with things I will never even know about. It affected me for such a long period of time. But I want to break the cycle. I want her to grow up so much healthier than I did.”
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