“That first time I held my son, a hole in my heart was filled. I felt like I had family back.”
Devon lost his family to gun violence when he was a teenager. The trauma and depression is what led him into homelessness. But 15 months ago when Devon Jr. was born, he found his motivation to make a change. “He was in the NICU for what felt like forever. That first time holding him, though,” Devon beams, the typically stoic look melting from his face, “was awesome – it changed my life.”
In 2005, Devon’s parents were the first of nine people killed by a gunman on the Red Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. The horror of the shooting gripped the small, tightly-woven community, but it fell especially hard on young Devon. “One day I was talking with my grandma on the phone about silly things, and the next day I was living with her and trying to deal with the fact that my parents were dead,” he reflected. “My grandma didn’t know how to help – she wasn’t equipped for something like this. So I would just go off and be by myself for really long times. It didn’t seem real.”
Heavy drinking and drug use followed as Devon sought any way to relieve the pain. It was at a party where he and Shaunte first met. “We bonded really quickly,” she said. “We were both in toxic relationships when we met, but found the courage from each other to leave those behind and start something new.” Starting something new meant moving to Minneapolis, where they each had siblings. “But then there was a fire at our apartment, and it put everyone out,” Shaunte lamented. “We tried staying in hotels, we tried staying with extended family, but neither one could last very long.” While her kids went to live with her mom, Shaunte and Devon had to try making a life on the streets. “Minnesota winters are hard. They’re even harder when you don’t have a home, don’t have a car, don’t have any place to get warm,” she said. Heroin, meth, and alcohol were all part of the rhythm of life as they tried to cope.
And then one day Shaunte found out she was pregnant.
While she entered rehab, Devon had to live alone on the streets for four months. “I didn’t have a phone, so I didn’t know if he was okay. It’s the middle of winter, and yeah, I had really high anxiety at that time,” she said, fighting back tears. “But when you have the right motivation, you can get through anything.” Devon Jr. became their motivation, their reason to move forward. “When I first held him, I knew I had to get sober and have the chance to be in his life,” Devon said. And so he did. “It’s what we needed to do to get our son.”
Devon and Shaunte were excited to get into Beacon’s shelter program, Families Moving Forward, because it meant they could stay together as a family, which wasn’t necessarily an option at other places. “Sometimes it felt like all we had was each other,” Shaunte reflected. “Being here, though, working with our case manager, we knew we had someone else on our side. We knew we didn’t have to do this alone.” After four months in shelter, they had a meeting with Sakinah Mujahid, Associate Director of Shelter Operations. “Sakinah mentioned needing to work with our landlord, and I stopped her,” Shaunte laughs. “We have a landlord?! I didn’t even know we had a place!”
“We’ve never had a place of our own, and now we get to do this together,” Devon smiles. “We’re doing this first for our kids, but it’s also for me. It’s been a long time coming.” In June, Devon, Shaunte, and Devon Jr. moved into their new home. Shaunte’s older children will be joining them soon. “We’ve never done this before, so there’s a lot of excitement, but there’s also anxiety,” Shaunte admits. There’s bills to pay, rooms to clean, a yard to mow. “But there’s also my very own bed. Wow,” she chuckles, “that feels great to say.”
For Devon, being sober means feeling his trauma in new ways. “I have to look at my past, and sometimes that’s really, really hard. I don’t want to do it. But I also know I can’t hide it under drugs or anything else.” Talking about the pain and fear and loss helps. And moving into their own home – new floors, renovated bathroom and all – feels like achieving a dream he never knew he had. “I feel really proud. Really proud. And I know my parents are proud.”
Devon Jr. is 15 months old and walking – and giggling – all over the place. Watching him reminds Shaunte and Devon why they’re moving forward. “I’m glad my son will have a place to stay,” Devon sighs happily, the smile back. “He won’t have to worry about anything.”