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.
The single mother didn't have any money to bury her daughter. Harris County offered to help, but the gravesite would be in Wallisville, and without transportation, they wouldn't be able to attend the burial, let alone ever visit.
"Wallisville is where they bury the homeless people. Everyone who dies and doesn't have any family, they bury them out there. They were going to bury her way out with the homeless and the criminals who die in jail," Edwards says.
So instead, Edwards told caseworker Sonya Ledoux with the county's Office of Social Services that, all things being equal, she'd rather exercise another option. "I decided to have her cremated so we could keep her."
And that's why Ta'lea White's remains sit in a white keepsake box on top of the TV where Disney movies play in the bedroom that her mother and brothers call home.
How does a person get to be 32 years old with no money and living in a room with two children and her dead baby' s ashes?
And in a house where mom gets by on the SSI payments she gets for her son, sister gets a check as her brother's care provider, and brother, who graduated from high school in special ed, has somehow regressed to the point where he can't walk, has to wear diapers, doesn't talk intelligibly and is being fed formula in a feeding tube because his neglected teeth are so rotten they'll all have to be extracted before he can chew solid food again?
Edwards grew up in Houston, went to Attucks Middle School — which she describes as a dangerous place and one she made sure Jamarcus did not go to — but lost interest in high school. "I would catch the bus, miss the bus, be late. They'd either mark me tardy or I'd get detention, so eventually I kind of stopped going. Disagreeing with the teachers and things of that nature," she says, laughing softly. She can't quite remember whether it was ninth or tenth grade when she dropped out, but she quickly adds that she did get her GED later.
Actually, it was much later — not till she was about 26 years old — and long after when, as a 17-year-old, she got sidetracked into a 15-month stay starting in 1996 at the Dayton Correctional Facility for probation violation after being convicted in 1995 for credit card abuse, a felony.
At the time she was working in a Travelodge hotel and a co-worker, she says, would take things out of guests' rooms and put them in their shared locker. "When they found the locker, they blamed both of us, but she had left, so I'm the one who went to jail for it. I spent the night in jail and that was it, they released me. But it still was on my record, and then they gave me probation and I violated it. They had me paying a fee but at the time I wasn't working, so I wasn't paying the fee. They'll violate you for that. I didn't do community service, and I didn't pay."
Being in prison "didn't bother me," she says. She was young and didn't have any children yet. "I was in a room with 52 other women. Some of them were drug addicts, some had committed their first crime, and some were repeat offenders." She took classes and resolved to never go back.
In the years that followed, jobs were fewand far between.
"I didn't have to work when I was in a relationship; most guys, when I'm in a relationship, they do the work. I just be the homemaker," she explains. "But during that time, I went to school, got the GED. I would just do volunteering. Then I applied for AmeriCorps; I did go to medical school also. Work Source paid for me to go to medical school to become a medical assistant."
But the Palm Center Learning Center lost its AmeriCorps contract, she says, and that ended her employment.
The Houston Press's first contact with Shundrekia Edwards was when she sent the paper a letter, asking for help. "I'm unemployed and going thru depression. I have no transportation. I have nothing to offer my kids right now," she wrote. She wanted clothes and shoes for them and toys for Christmas.
She and her sons already had an attorney, Andy Wilbur of the Jim Adler & Associates firm, but she didn't think their cases were moving fast enough. ("We've had it four months. An average case probably has a history of six to nine months start to finish," Wilbur says.)
She had been ready to go back to work, but right after the accident she couldn't, because she and her sons were in physical therapy. Now she was on hold, waiting for a possible settlement in the case filed against the other driver's insurance company. Her marriage plans were on the back burner again, too.
At her house, Edwards talks about needing transportation most of all. She's tired of relying on others and scrounging for money to pay for trips. She has no money for anything. Besides the food stamps, she is getting by with a County Health Department gold card and a Medicaid card for her kids.
Mostly what she talks about are her kids. "Jamarcus is very smart, but his grades started dropping after the wreck." The doctors want him to focus on school and sports, so he gets Prozac to ease him through the day and Seroquel to help him sleep at night.
The younger Jaylyn has more permanent problems. Diagnosed with autism and IED (Intermittent Explosive Disorder) that makes him very aggressive at times, he has been making strides since getting medication. But he still vomits up his medicine from time to time and urinates on himself if upset.
All three of them talk about Ta'lea, and sometimes in the present tense. Jamarcus wrote a poem to her and carried it around with him until he memorized it. Edwards shows off a scrapbook she made for Ta'lea to introduce her to all their relatives and friends.
Jamarcus says math is his favorite subject. He doesn't know what he wants to be or do ultimately, but short term, his wishes include having his own room and a bike. Jaylyn doesn't talk much at first — he starts crying around a stranger, reverses course to show off his workbook, then alternates between a brief fit of temper and falling asleep in an instant.
Edwards clearly has significant money issues and doesn't seem particularly adept at negotiating bureaucracies. She complained about each of her sons having only one uniform shirt — she couldn't afford any more — but a Press call to the Houston Independent School District press office got a quick response with names and contacts at each of her sons' schools identifying who would help her. Within days, she had more shirts at no cost.
Another day she called to say that her food stamps had been shut off and that when she tried to call the Texas Health and Human Services food stamp office in Houston, no one would answer. The Press experience was exactly the same — no one answers the phone there, and voice mailboxes are already full (except we didn't have to stand in line for almost three hours after being told our benefits were denied before giving up and going home). And yet this situation was resolved in the next few days; the food stamp office did finally call back and tell her she wasn't being denied, her application was still just being processed.
She called one day furious with her attorney, Wilbur. A company had called offering to front her some money, in exchange for which she'd pay fees to them once she got her expected settlement. Over the phone, she talked about them getting 30 percent, and when told this seemed exorbitant, repeated that she needed the money now.
Wilbur says his firm used to work with these so-called funding companies, but no more. "It turned out they were just taking advantage of our clients, and then at the end of the case, all the money would go to them and then the client would lose interest in the case.
"This one in particular is a place called Law Cash. They come in to purchase a piece of your case. They'll loan her a thousand dollars; 'you sign this interest over to us' and they now have an enforceable lien against the settlement. That thousand may turn into $2,000 in six months. There's a high origination fee, and they charge a ridiculous amount of interest."
So Wilbur made Edwards unhappy, but to his way of seeing it, he helped steer her away from a wrong decision. As it is, her case is a strong one; she was a passenger in the car, wearing a seat belt, and it's pretty clear who was at fault, he says.
The only thing he says that might come up for discussion is whether the wreck caused the miscarriage. "We've got a baby that was at 41 weeks and three pounds." But Edwards dismisses that, saying that to begin with she never has big babies — both Jamarcus and Jaylyn were only five or six pounds each — and anyway, the doctors had extended her due date, so she really wasn't quite as far along as first thought.
The number of people with heartbreaking problems and needs in Houston is massive. Shundrekia Edwards and her children may not be the most worthy, but they are not unworthy of our help either. They are the face of all the people stuck in bad places, whose lives play out in desperate and often unnoticed fashion.
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Edwards says she's not trying to get a big payoff, just enough money to move out, get basic necessities and transportation and an urn for her daughter's remains.
Oh, and she'd like enough money to get a Christmas tree. They didn't have one last year. And Christmas Day is Jaylyn's birthday.
Shundrekia Edwards has bank account #404904047 at First Convenience Bank, 6322 Telephone Road, Houston, TX 77087.