By Jacquline Groskaufmanis, Street Sense
Street Sense vendor Sheila White is many things: an artist, a mother, a grandmother, a Washingtonian, and an activist in her community. After her apartment was flooded last year, she was forced to leave her home and her belongings behind. When she moved out onto the streets, she was robbed, twice, losing everything from her dentures to her personal identification. She got back on her feet and joined Street Sense—a new creative community on her road to re-gaining housing — and is working to tell her story and improve the stories of others. “I have a sense of belonging to something again, somewhere I can go to make something of my life, and make some sense of what I need to do,” said White.
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., White has lived all over the District and has planted deep roots in the city. Calling herself a “childhood tomboy,” she grew up alongside five brothers and eleven uncles, attending D.C. public schools in her youth. She went on to work for the same DCPS school system later in life, in addition to serving on the school’s’ parent-teacher board for her own children. In addition to considering herself to be an advocate for children, she considers herself to be an advocate for the city.
As a community activist, Sheila has created art that advocates the importance of voting and using one’s voice. She is also personally invested in voting, and at the time of writing is going to great lengths to regain valid identification (after her old ID was stolen) in order to vote. However, White’s medium of choice at Street Sense is poetry.
When it comes to homelessness, she has many opinions of her own as well, and is working to make those opinions known. After leaving her apartment and living on the streets for about a year, she has a seasoned perspective on what it means to lose housing and what the resources are for people who experience this. Now, she has moved in with her son, and has a new perspective: that of someone who is trying, with great difficulty, to find affordable housing in the district. Because of this, her voice is particularly credible on issues of homelessness. “We don’t need another shelter, that’s a quick fix” White said, speaking on an article she had recently read in the Washington Post. “What we need is affordable housing.”
It is this kind of information that White primarily aims to spread, regardless of whether or not she receives anything in exchange. Often times, she will give away copies of Street Sense for free. “I want people to read the paper more than I want the two dollars,” said White. “We have stories to tell, and I want [readers] to know what we’re about.”
While much of her time and energy goes to working at Street Sense, making art for Street Sense, and attending community meetings on finding solutions to homelessness, White enjoys many simple things as well. A self-proclaimed “all-American girl,” she loves to write and listen to music in her free time. “I just love people and I love life,” White said.