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A Resident's Perspective On Life In D.C. General

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The D.C. General building is located on the grounds of RFK Stadium in Southeast D.C.
WAMU/Martin Austermuhle
The D.C. General building is located on the grounds of RFK Stadium in Southeast D.C.

It’s an overcast Friday afternoon and Sherell McGee is getting ready to go on her weekly shopping trip to Target in Columbia Heights. Normally, McGee would catch the 96 bus from the D.C. Armory to 14th Street in Northwest. Then she would transfer to the 52 up to Columbia Heights.

But today, she caught a ride along with her friend, Brea Archie.

“I’m coming just to pick up a few things for the kids to eat. I come to Target because it’s cheaper than a regular grocery store,” McGee said.

This is McGee’s second trip of the day to Northwest. Earlier, she loaded two of her four children onto the 96 bus to take them to daycare.

The calculus of transportation is part of McGee’s reality these days. Since moving to D.C. General last New Year’s Eve, McGee’s life has been spent figuring out how to get from here to there as cheaply as possible.

McGee is 27 with short black hair and a relaxed manner. She’s a graduate of D.C.’s Dunbar High School and the mother of four children. The two youngest — a rambunctious 3-year-old named Amari, and Jamirah, his 4-year-old sister — live with McGee at the shelter. The two oldest — a 14-year-old and a 7-year-old — stay with relatives elsewhere.

Giving her kids the stability she lacked growing up is McGee’s sole focus. “If you have it set in your mind that you’re going do it, you’ll be prepared for it and you’ll get up and go do it,” she said.

McGee says at D.C. General, it’s easy to get sidelined by drama created by other shelter residents.

“They’re miserable. And you know, miserable loves company. They just sit in there and don’t do nothing with themselves. It’s so sad,” McGee said.

McGee suspects the cause of some of the residents’ behavior is that they’ve simply been at the shelter too long. She tries to avoid run-ins with people by staying in her room when she’s at D.C. General.

McGee’s room at the shelter is generous. She pushed the mattresses together to make one big bed and she and the kids snuggle there at night. But shutting yourself in a room is no way to live. So McGee is trying to be proactive. She wants to be the kind of mom who takes charge of her life.

That’s why she’s been “handling her business” since she came to the shelter.

“Handling my business is going out, getting myself up in the morning,” she said. “Like I will sit there and say, Sherell, you need to go up and get your ID, you Social Security card, get up and go, sit down at these buildings and handle your business so you can be out the building, so you can have your stuff so you can get as job ,so you can be better and take care of your kids better.”

McGee is unemployed and landing a job has been impossible, she says, because she doesn’t have a valid ID. Her purse was stolen a year and a half ago and it’s been a clerical nightmare to get a new driver’s license and Social Security card. She’s close now, though. Her replacement Social Security card came last week.

McGee says she’s hoping to land a job at a new discount store coming to the Hechinger Mall in Northeast D.C. But what she really wants to do is cook.

“When I was younger, I wanted to be a lawyer. I went from a lawyer to a police officer, from a police officer I said I wanted to be a cook. And I’m still sticking with a cook,” she said. “I want to go to culinary arts school, but I don’t have the time. I’m the only one taking care of the babies. So I wouldn’t have the time to.”

There’s the rub. As a mom who lives in a homeless shelter with two kids, it’s tough for McGee to make headway on her dreams. Her days are spent filling out reams of paperwork, shopping for food, taking parenting classes, keeping her kids out of trouble and trying to extricate herself from D.C. General. And a lot of time is spent in transit.

When McGee finally arrives at Target, she’s focused. She and her friend Brea Archie take a quick look at the bathing suits before heading to the grocery section.

The shelter doesn’t have facilities where residents can cook. And McGee’s kids won’t eat the prepared food there because it’s gross, she says. So she buys them food they will eat — cold cereal, microwaveable mac and cheese, strawberry applesauce and their favorite, Oodles of Noodles.

If all goes well, McGee and her kids will be set up in their own apartment soon, likely in one of the city’s transitional housing units. McGee would like her new home to be closer to a store like Target. But she’d just be happy in a place she can call her own.

Music: "Pantheons" by Black Clouds from Everything Is Not Going To Be Okay

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