This is the story of a remarkable, intelligent woman who overcame poverty through her faith, determination, and love for her children.

By Kolby Ford

standing outside with baby

In 2007, Shanelle Gayden lost her job and her home.  At that time she was 3 months pregnant and already a mother of two young boys.  She had two weeks vacate her home.  “I was extremely depressed, but I packed everything up and moved in with my mother,” says Gayden.  When the Maryland native’s third child was born she went from sleeping on the couch to moving into her mothers bedroom. “I was supposed to stay with my mom until I got back on my feet, I didnt think I would be there for two years.”

During those two years Gayden found another job in Alexandria VA and that is when she discovered BARN, a transitional housing program for mothers. It is composed of three apartments that house up to twelve families.  Each resident shares a common room and  kitchen.  At first Gayden was reluctant to make the call to BARN.  “I didn’t want to be labeled by the system, but I swallowed my pride and did what i had to do.”  The goal of the HUD funded program is too create self reliant individuals, Gayden was denied assistance from them at first because she did not have a car.  “I was very determined to move out of mom’s so I saved money and bought a car.”  She applied again In June and was accepted in July.  “I was extremely grateful but I wasnt satisfied.”  Gayden was moving into a shelter in Bristow, VA and was already planning her next move to independence.  Living in her new community was a blessing to her but she struggled with the other occupants.  Gayden was stressed out because her youngest, Dallen, was being bullied by another child.  Besides that, she strived on maintaining a positive environment for her little ones.

The average length of stay in the program is two years.  According to BARN’s website, “In ten years of service 96% of families who successfully complete BARN’s program move into self-sufficient permanent housing and of those 11 families left as homeowners with traditional mortgages.

Another surprise was about to happen for Ms. Gayden, she would be notified by a housing specialist that she would be moving into a new place in Alexandria by Christmas.  She had only been living in the shelter for five months.  “No one has ever left a shelter that quickly before, I am the first.”  Gayden was so excited that she wanted to surprise her family.  “I gathered them in the car, and told them we were going to visit Grandma, but the kids new I was hiding something because we usually dont pack all of our stuff to go visit Grandma.”  “We finally arrived at our new place and I showed them our new house, we walked inside and it began to snow.”

Gayden commuted from Alexandria to Bristow so she could continue working and keep her boys in a great school.  Maintaining a job was important to her because she wanted to prove to others in the Housing Agencies that she was  responsible, and hardworking. To move into the Hopkins Tancil public housing, Gayden was required to pay 30 percent of their income for security deposit.  The less money someone makes the less responsibilities they have in regards to paying bills.  “I did not want want to get into the mind set that if you didnt get a job your rent would be zero.” Based on the regulations set by HUD,  “The Department of Housing and Urban Development sets the lower income limits at 80% and very low income limits at 50% of the median income for the county or metropolitan area in which you choose to live.”

Snacking on popcorn and having movie nights with her children are just some of the ways she kept her children shielded from negativity.  To her it was still public housing, there were roaches and the plumbing was bad.  However she held onto her faith and knew that she would overcome this as well.   To keep a watchful eye on Dallen, Diondre, and Demetrius, she became very involved in her community.  “I wanted to be the face of public housing.”  Gayden became a volunteer at the Ruby Tucker center, she was  a member of the PTA, and was elected Vice President for public housing.   She became an advocate for low income families in the Alexandria area.

A year and half later, she moved out into the city’s west end.  In her current home she has a prayer room.  Its decorated with family photos and butterflies are painted on the wall that remind her that she is always changing.  Just by looking at the smiles on the pictures, one wouldn’t know that Shanelle Gayden was once homeless.  Its amazing how much strength she has.  I asked her what would be her advice to anyone going through the same tribulations she said, “hold on to faith, let go of fear and watch the doors open up.”

Gayden, who is also a play-write,  currently serves as the President for the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority Resident Associaiton.  The entrepreneur, is the founder of Creative Minds Mentoring Program, I AM MY SISTERS KEEPER, and Phenomenal Mother.  These organizations allow her to continue be a strong supportive role model in her area.  To learn more about Gayden and her upcoming projects just Google her!

shanelle prayer room shanelle by herself shanelle and baby (2)3

  1. Shardai McRae says:

    Great and inspirational. Love u Shanelle

  2. Patarice Hall says:

    Beautiful story…..

  3. Chenee Hamilton says:

    awesome story

  4. Nisa Harper says:

    Awesome Story! This can be used in any setting or workshop to inspire people to overcome obstacles!

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