It’s Not a Shelter, It’s My Home
Sonya Johnson’s story as told to Angie Rogers-Howell
At 17 years old, Edward Johnson was only interested in one thing— a one night stand—while 16-year-old Thema Durtin searched for someone to love. One thing lead to another and they found out they were expecting me, Sonya Johnson.
My mother didn’t know what to do. She was determined to marry my father whether they loved each other or not. So, they married, and I was born in Gary, Indiana.
My father worked all the time to make ends meet and my mother didn’t know how to handle a newborn and a new marriage. She would leave me alone for hours at a time either for work or for drugs. My grandmother dropped by unexpectedly one day and she found me in my crib dirty, hungry, soiled, and all alone.
From that point on, I lived with my grandparents.
My grandparents loved me and gave me everything I needed. But they couldn’t give me the one thing I craved: my biological parent’s love.
After high school, I began to seek out my biological parents. First, I found my mother. She was beautiful and I hoped she would tell me she loved me. The entire time we talked, she never once asked about how I was doing or anything about me. I did not get the “I Love You” or the apology I hoped for. This devastated me. I went back out to my car and cried so hard that I couldn’t drive.
Then I set out to meet my father. I knew he had to want me.
Edward Johnson had become a big-time drug dealer. He had a fancy a gold Cadallac and plenty of money. He owned an arcade which he used as a front for his drug business. I found love—conditional love. I wanted to do anything to get my father’s love. I went to school during the day but was a drug runner for him at night. I had fancy clothes and fancy car. I started drinking at 20 years old to fit in and partying every night.
Drinking and partying so much made it hard to get to school on time so I dropped out of college. In my mid-twenties, I had no future, no plans, and fake love – nothing real. I kept drinking more to make myself feel good. I was estranged from the grandparents who had raised me. I was all alone.
While at a friend’s party, I engaged in a one night stand that resulted in my beautiful daughter, Apolonia. But, just like my father, this man didn’t want anything to do with either of us. But in my daughter, I found someone who would love me. I did my best to make ends meet. But it wasn’t enough. I went back to drinking to drown my pain. I left my daughter with my grandmother so I could party.
At the age of 26, I was pregnant again with my daughter Mercedes. I loved being a mom but I was still empty inside and I continued to numb it by drinking every day. I was a functioning alcoholic. I thought I hid it well, but my grandmother and oldest daughter knew everything. I just went to work, drank, slept, repeat—for years this went on.
My father died from an overdose of crack at 45 and then my grandparents both died. I was in a dark place and couldn’t’ get out of bed. I prayed for God to just take me.
I started partying even more. I switched from beer to vodka—vodka numbed the pain quicker. Eventually, I attempted to commit suicide and was admitted into a mental health facility. My daughter Mercedes came to rescue me. When she showed up, she barely recognized me. I had lost a lot of weight and barely weighed 95 pounds.
My daughter brought me to live here in Muncie. My life was a mess and I needed to pick up the pieces. I found a home and a family at the YWCA of Muncie. The people here have loved me unconditionally. They love me through the good and the bad. Here at the YWCA, we are family. Actually, they treat me better than my own family. These are my sisters. We look out for each other.
A lot of time, when people think of a homeless shelter, they see images of dirty stinky addicts who are not motivated to get on the right track. The YWCA is helping change that stereotype. Just because we live at the YWCA does not mean that we’re worthless or less human. We may not have a lot and we may be without a permanent home, but we look out for each other and make sure no one goes without their necessities.
I recently started the “The Boutique” at the YWCA. We’ve set up an area in the building where the ladies who live here can come in and shop through donated professional clothes for free. Earlier today, one of our residents had to go to court. I saw her walk into the common area and said, “Girl, you can’t go to court looking like that! Let’s get you fixed up.”
So, we took her into the boutique and got her dressed properly to stand before a judge. Then we all walked with her to the courthouse and supported her. Right now, we’re waiting for her to come back to the YWCA with good news about her case.
We look out for each other like that.
We’re a building full of women and children so of course we have our differences of opinion and don’t always get along. Life is not always rainbows here, but we’re learning ways of dealing with conflict. We’ve started a “Girl Talk” group and we meet most days over coffee and talk through our problems and issues. It really helps to be in a community where we can all talk about what we’re going through and find ways to handle them.
Even though we live in a shelter, we do what all families do. We play games, watch TV or movies, exercise, take walks. We swim in the pool, sing karaoke, do laundry, and go grocery shopping together. If someone needs to go to work or school, we help watch the kids while she does that. If someone needs help practicing for a job interview, we help them do that. If someone needs talked down from making a bad decision, we do that too. Everyone has their role.
My time here at the YWCA has been one of the best parts of my life and I love this place. It has truly saved my life. I am on the path out of the shelter program and into permanent housing. By the end of this year, I will be living on my own. That can be scary. A lot of us have never really lived on our own before. But I’m working through the program at the YWCA and I’ll be ready to be on my own. Even after I move out, I’ll still have a family with those here. I’ll have access to support services to be sure I stay on my feet and don’t end up back in a shelter again.
Last weekend, I visited my daughter Mercedes. I didn’t have to tell her I was sober—she could look at me and tell immediately. I still have some work I need to do in my family relationships. I’m not very close with my oldest daughter. I’ve been sober since 08/15/15, but she’s seen me at my worst. I can’t be mad at her for being distant right now. One day I hope I can prove myself to her and we can be closer.
Home isn’t just a place where you live. I’ve lived in a lot of different places that didn’t feel like “home.” Home is a place where people support one another and go through life together. For the first time in my life, I’ve found my home and, for that, I’m truly grateful. Here at the YWCA, we don’t call this a shelter. It’s our home.
Angie Rogers-Howell owns Farmhouse Creative, an organization that helps small businesses and nonprofits with marketing and branding. She launched the business out of her family’s farmhouse in 2012 after deciding she didn’t want to work for someone else anymore.