Shawntay is originally from Norfolk, Virginia, but moved to Kentucky 15 years ago. His marriage to his wife didn’t survive the relocation, and once they officially separated, Shawntay found himself without housing and living on the streets. While unhoused, Shawntay met Unique. Unique, originally from North Carolina, was also experiencing homelessness in Lexington at the same time. Unique’s mother moved her children to Kentucky when her own mother became ill. Once Unique found herself unhoused, she didn’t feel comfortable turning to her family even though her mother still lives in Lexington. While Shawntay and Unique were unhoused, they would often go to the woods to find a place to sleep. Now, they have been in an apartment for two years, with support from New Beginnings, an agency committed to continually developing and implementing housing programs to help meet the needs of individuals with serious mental illnesses.
Homelessness is a traumatic experience. Shawntay is a man of few words, but this quality gives his stories conviction. “Experiencing homelessness was terrible. It was a nightmare, and I hate to have to see anyone else go through what I did,” he said. Not only was his experience a “nightmare” for him then, but even today Shawntay has trouble grappling with this period of his life. He detailed his ritual for bringing himself back to reality: “I jump up quickly, and turn the light on, because in the woods, you don’t have a light to turn on when it’s dark at night.” Unique shared that they never felt comfortable, regardless of the weather. “You’d go to sleep and it would be a clear night, fine weather, you’d go to sleep. Next thing you know, you’d wake up in the pouring rain.” From there, they’d gather their few belongings and run to a nearby building that had an awning big enough to hide their bodies from the storm.
While experiencing homelessness, Shawntay and Unique found great difficulty getting proper food, nutrition, and hygiene. Neither one had incomes, and their isolation from service providers left them unprotected, vulnerable, and dependent on the kindness of strangers.e. They had no way to wash their clothes, and sometimes they didn’t even have toilet paper. Unique detailed further anxiety added onto homelessness in the form of asking strangers for help. “You never knew how someone might react, they might turn up their nose at you, they might cuss you out, they might try to harm you.” But Unique and Shawntay both agree on the most terrible night of their experience: their run-in with a pack of coyotes. The coyotes had found their camp in the woods, probably in search of food. The couple was asleep when Shawntay heard them approaching. Shawntay remembers waking Unique, “Get up babe, get up! They’re going to bite us, they’re going to get us.” Horrified, they threw the little remaining food they had to the wild dogs and ran in hopes that they would remain safe.
After that, Shawntay and Unique went to a local Health Department. While there, a New Beginnings employee approached them and said, “We’ve been looking for y’all.” Shawntay’s application for housing through New Beginnings was finally approved, but since he had been living in the woods, they hadn’t been able to contact him. Realizing that he was finally being recognized and soon to be offered a reprieve from the terrors of the woods, Shawntay began to sob. New Beginnings found me. And that was a blessing… I was crying, jumping up and down, you should’ve seen me. It was the happiest day of my life.” Currently, Unique is taking parenting classes in the hopes of one day regaining custody of her children. “Without New Beginnings, I wouldn’t have housing. Now that I’m housed, there’s nothing left preventing me from bringing my children home.”
Lex End Homelessness is dedicated to helping clients, like Shawntay and Unique, and partners like New Beginnings, in our mission to end homelessness in Lexington. Get involved with Lex End Homelessness by visiting our website, joining the Continuum of Care, donating to the Lex End Homelessness campaign, or by following us on social media @lexendhomelessness.