First Person: A Closet Became Our Shelter

LeLand wouldn’t stop crying. I could hear my mother doing everything she could to keep him quiet: feeding him, rocking him, singing to him, but none of it worked. He was restless. As soon as she thought she had finally gotten him to sleep, he would cry out to her, shaking us awake as his voice echoed throughout the basement. I was scared. If he didn’t stop crying, SHE would hear us.

Eve would come after us and try to get my mom in trouble. If not her, someone else in the building would wonder what all the noise was, come down to investigate, and catch us. I turned around to shush him, but it was so dark. All I could see was a faint outline of my mother moving back and forth. I could barely hear the plastic trash bags, filled with clothes, books and forgotten items beneath her, give way as she rocked LeLand to calm him.

“Shhh,” she whispered to him in between sniffles.

I laid back down and tried to get comfortable. But my own pile of trash bags wasn’t all filled with clothes, and something kept poking me in the side. Eventually, exhaustion prevailed and I dozed off.

As I slept, I dreamt of the menacing look on Eve’s face as she looked out at me from below her kitchen window. She had locked us out of her apartment. My mom, thinking that Eve had just forgotten to leave the door open again, told me to climb through the kitchen window and open the door for her. That’s what we did the last time this happened. But as soon as I went to open the window, Eve was there. She was not happy. She exchanged words with my mother and that was it. She was done. We could not stay with her anymore. Eve threatened to call the police if I tried to climb through her window again.

It was starting to get late and the sun was setting. With so short notice and nowhere to go, we snuck into the basement of Eve’s building. It was a large room with washers and dryers against the right wall and a large sink on the left wall. In the middle of the room was a set of storage closets. I don’t remember how we got inside Eve’s closet, but it ended up being our shelter for the night. My mom slept with LeLand in the back while I slept alone in the front.

It was a restless night due to LeLand’s crying. Who could blame him? He was only a little over a year old. No words can describe the joy I felt when we finally emerged from the closet in the morning. I sat on the floor and played with my hands as my mom changed LeLand’s diaper and got him prepared for the day. When it was my turn to get ready, my mom brought me to the large sink, ripe with hard-water deposits and basement sweat, to help me wash up.

A weight was lifted off my tiny shoulders when we finally crossed the threshold from the basement and into the glow of the new day. But I didn’t completely relax until we were on the RTA bus on our way to my school. Once we were there, the night became a distant memory. I had just transferred to this school and my mind was preoccupied with getting to know a third set of new faces and names that year.

I took the RTA bus by myself after school to the familiar Hayden Daycare, where I could swing or play hide-and-seek with my friends. Yet, with each fluffy cloud that disappeared beyond the horizon, darkness stretched across the sky, bringing the night before back to the forefront of my mind. Will we have to sleep in Eve’s basement again? Will she catch us this time? Will someone else catch us? Why couldn’t we sleep in her warm apartment on the soft carpet of her living room anymore? Did Mommy do something wrong? Did I?

It was then that I realized that this life, our life, was not normal. I had never heard my friends talking about sleeping in a closet and washing up in a big dirty sink. I didn’t quite understand it all, yet it was beginning to become clear. I was 7 years old then.

Jasmine Johnson ’15 triple-majored at Chapman University, graduating with degrees in creative writing, communication studies, and television and broadcast journalism. When she started at Chapman, her room in North Morlan Hall became the first permanent housing of her life. While at the University, she took legal guardianship of her brother, LeLand, and the two now share an apartment in Fullerton. Jasmine’s mother continues to struggle with homelessness. This piece is an excerpt from Jasmine’s forthcoming book “When Life Serves You Lemons: My Life From Tragedy to Triumph and Your Guide to Making the Best Lemonade.”

 

 

 

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