Lashanda Daniels's Outstanding Essay on the Homeless Was No Academic Exercise—She'd Been There

UPDATED 07/31/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/31/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

When it came to writing an essay on the homeless for a Boston-wide contest, seventh-grader Lashanda Daniels knew what she was talking about. Unlike the other kids, she did not need to go to the library and read a bunch of news clips to write her award-winning essay. For Lashanda, living in a city shelter with her mother and four brothers for five months was research enough.

The truth is, it was more than that; Lashanda, 13, who now lives in the relative splendor of a state-subsidized, four-bedroom apartment in Roxbury, has been indelibly marked by the experience. She says she knew the third-floor room in the Boston Family Shelter was better than living on the street this past winter. She also knew that being in the shelter was only a temporary state of affairs, especially given the pluck and resourcefulness of her mother, Carolyn. Still, Lashanda could not help feeling embarrassed, even angry. "First you hate yourself for being in this predicament," she wrote in the essay that earned her second place and $250 in a contest, sponsored by the Boston police and a local radio station, that drew more than 600 entries. "Then that feeling of hate spreads toward those around you. You find yourself being jealous of those who have a home and you feel as though everyone looks down on you."

The Daniels family became homeless through a series of misfortunes that began with Carolyn's effort to find a better life for her children. Divorced more than 10 years ago, she and the family had made several visits to an aunt living in Detroit, and it struck Carolyn as a better place to live. So she saved money from her monthly assistance checks, and the family moved to Detroit in September 1987. Almost immediately, she says, she discovered "we'd made a terrible mistake. The drugs and gangs were so bad we wanted to get out immediately. But we didn't have any money left."

According to Carolyn, her eldest son, Mory Mack, 17, was beaten up for refusing to join a gang. "But they eventually got him," she says. "He began working in a drug house, and I discovered later that he missed more than 60 days of school." Mory says he took the first money he made with the gang and bought himself a ticket back to Boston in March 1988. The rest of the family was not so lucky. "We had to stay until September," says Carolyn, "until I got enough money together. I was working at K Mart and a pizza restaurant, and every time I got a paycheck, I'd buy another bus ticket."

While amassing the necessary cash, the family had to endure bottles and bricks thrown through the windows of their home by gang members—and, one night, a hail of bullets. Their reception upon returning to Boston was not much friendlier. Applying for housing assistance, Carolyn learned her family had forfeited such aid when they moved out of the city and says she was told to "go back to Detroit." Shortly after, she moved her kids into the shelter. "Those five months were agony," says Carolyn. "The room seemed to shrink smaller and smaller every month. There were so many negatives in my life, but I decided I wasn't going to let them get me down."

Lashanda remembers the night Carolyn told them she had finally got approval for state-subsidized housing and moved them into a Roxbury apartment. "My mother was smiling. She said, 'Let's go. We don't live here anymore.' I was so happy. We drove to this enormous building, and I got my own room. It felt so good."

Lashanda's perceptive essay didn't surprise her teachers at James P. Timilty School one bit. "She's a bright, articulate girl," says Daisy Droge, the English teacher who got her to enter the contest. Adds principal Mary Grassa O'Neill: "She has undergone hardship but she has survived. I think she's going to thrive. Most of us can't imagine what it's like to be homeless. But the essay showed the experience made her stronger."

Lashanda agrees. "I wanted to tell people it's not an easy feeling. I wanted to tell them to bear with the homeless. Don't put them down. It might not be their fault. It can feel very hopeless." While her family is still struggling—Carolyn and Mory continue to look for work to support Lashanda and her younger brothers, Eric, Derrick and Robert—Lashanda knows it is no small blessing they live together under one roof. "I still get very sad seeing people sleeping on the streets. I think I always will."

—William Plummer, S. Avery Brown in Boston

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