By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Thirty-two-year-old Shundrekia Edwards and her two sons live in one bedroom of her parents' southeast Houston house near Mykawa Road. All three sleep together in the bottom bunk bed; the top is filled with boxes of odds and ends and the stuffed animals that were meant for the boys' sister, who died before she was born after a car wreck last July.
The dark carpet has seen a lot of spills; the occasional roach scuttles across the floor and up along the floor-to-ceiling boxes lining most of the room. It's difficult to tell how big the bedroom is; the walls press in hard on what little open space there is; the air is heavy and still. A TV sits at one end, a CD player on the other.
But it is here that Edwards and her sons Jamarcus Williams Edwards, 11, and Jaylyn Edwards, four, spend most of their days, other than when the kids are in school. They can't afford a converter box to catch the new digital signals, so they use the TV to play DVDs over and over, mostly Disney — Jungle Book is a favorite. They couldn't afford more than one school uniform, so Edwards washes her boys' shirts out each night and hangs them over the fan in the room to dry.
The outside brings its own dangers: weird people on the streets who sometimes grab at them, and a roving pack of wild dogs that sometimes chases them and that the city has been only partially successful at removing.
Both boys are on medication, Jaylyn for the last six months since he was diagnosed as autistic in May, and Jamarcus since the July 14 wreck. Jaylyn sleeps a lot, but he's able to function in school now and the pre-K class isn't kicking him out like the Head Start program did, his mother says. Jamarcus has been depressed, but seems to be feeling better lately, is re-involved in sports and has improved his grades at Cullen Middle School. He's a smart kid who last year passed all sections of the TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) test and was commended in reading and math. He also takes afternoon naps after getting home from school, but at least he no longer wakes each night at 12 or 1 in the morning, blaming himself for everything that went wrong, worrying about what could go wrong next.
They live on food stamps from the state and forbearance from her parents. The tension in this household is palpable as Edwards leads visitors through dark hallways directly to her bedroom in the back of the house, past the room where her 23-year-old bedridden, autistic brother stays ("Autism runs in our family," she says), past the living room where her 27-year-old sister and caregiver for their brother is catching a nap, quietly and swiftly to the back of the house where she and her sons try not to make too much noise or any trouble for anyone.
Her father works construction, and her mother is a homemaker with health problems of her own who has been threatening for 30 years to divorce him. No one in the house has a car. Edwards pays others to give her rides to get to the doctors. If she doesn't have money, she barters with whatever possessions she has left. She sold her car for parts to the junkyard for $200 after it got caught in some high water and the engine seized up. Her kids catch Metro buses to get to school.
Edwards and her sons weren't supposed to be living here now. Life was looking up last July 14 when she went to lunch at Arby's with a friend, his son, her boyfriend and her two sons. Plan was, after Edwards had her baby, she and her boyfriend, Tyree White, the baby's father, were going to get married and move to a place of their own with her children.
But a chance encounter upended those plans, sending Edwards and her family into a limbo land that they've been unable to escape in the months since.
After lunch, everyone got back in the car; the friend was driving, Edwards was in the front seat and her boyfriend was in the backseat with the kids. Behind them, a truck, going too fast, started hopping lanes in heavy traffic on the Gulf Freeway. As the traffic before them came to a standstill, the truck driver changed back into their lane and rammed them from behind. They, in turn, smashed into the Astro van ahead of them.
Initially, the only ones thought to be injured were her friend's 12-year-old son, who hurt his shoulder and neck, and Edwards, nine months pregnant, who had sharp back pains and a stiff neck. A day later, Edwards's sons started hurting and were referred for physical therapy.
Five days later, on July 19, Edwards delivered her stillborn daughter at Park Place Hospital. She had no money; Park Place was nearby, so she walked in. "They say it was the 16th or 17th when she died. The cord wrapped around her neck and choked her," Edwards says.
"I got to hold her and kiss her." She named her Ta'lea — although the hospital got the name wrong and put Tailea on her birth certificate, and Edwards couldn't figure out a way to get it changed.