DANIEL OF THE YEAR | In Honduras, many residents feel trapped by poverty, violence, and addiction. Michael Miller has spent two decades hitting the streets and devoting his life to some of the country’s youngest and most vulnerable
I first met Keanakay Scott this past January at a transitional housing shelter in Los Angeles. At the time, she had just scored a two-bedroom apartment in South Central LA through Section 8, a program that subsidizes housing for low-income tenants. She was giddy with excitement: “It’s weird! I haven’t had my own place in ... in ... in forever!”
Keanakay is 29, but from the age of 4 she grew up in the foster care system, bouncing from one house to another before landing in a group home. At 18, she aged out of the system and rented her first apartment of her own, but lost it within a month because nobody had ever taught her how to pay her bills. She never had a consistent adult in her life to guide her toward independence. The state tried, but nothing can truly replace a loving, persistent adult guardian.
After meeting Keanakay and hearing her story, I decided to write an article about her and the challenges foster youth face when they age out of the system—and why about half of those emancipated youth fall into homelessness.
The article doesn’t include all of Keanakay’s story, though. It doesn’t, for example, tell about the time when, soon after she gave birth to her firstborn, a man who seemed to care about Keanakay persuaded her to join him in Washington, D.C., telling her there were plenty of jobs there. So Keanakay took her infant child and flew to D.C., hoping to start a new life, one that would free her from dependence on government assistance. Instead, she said, the man took her to a motel, raped her, and robbed her of everything she had. That day, left with nothing but a broken soul and a crying baby, she wrote a note to her daughter apologizing for failing her, wrapped a rope around her own neck, and tried to strangle herself to death. Instead she passed out holding her baby in her arms. She woke up the next morning feeling sick to her bones—but she was still alive. God had spared her life for some reason, so she decided to fight on.
But life’s grief never seemed to end for Keanakay (she recently self-published a memoir about it). Currently, her first daughter’s biological grandparents are fighting for custody over their grandchild. Keanakay did everything she could to keep her, but the child made the decision to stay with her grandparents, sending Keanakay into a deep depression.
In the meantime, Keanakay lost her Section 8 voucher because she asked the Los Angeles Housing Authority if she could move to another house. The neighborhood she lived in had no parking, and she would spend more than 30 minutes in the evenings looping around the area, looking for a parking space. Eventually she had to take Lyft to get around, which was costing her more than she could afford. It’s a typical LA problem— but for someone like Keanakay, it tipped her over the brink back to a transitional housing shelter with her second daughter.
Today Keanakay lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Koreatown that has its own parking garage. But the way her second daughter responded to their new living situation broke Keanakay’s heart. “When are we going back to the shelter?” she kept asking her mother. Having been homeless since birth, transition is all she knows—and she was expressing her sense of instability and insecurity.
Keanakay began questioning her faith, wondering if God really had her back, feeling so overwhelmed, depressed, lonely, and stressed that she took a six-month medical leave from work. She had essentially lost custody of her firstborn. She had lost housing again, through no fault of her own. She was once again in the position of needing to ask for help, something that triggered intense self-loathing and shame. Meanwhile, her second daughter was constantly asking when they’d lose housing again, when her big sister was coming back.
All this stress was more than one person could bear alone. But Keanakay remembered a verse she had always held close: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).
So she prayed. She used to need people to pray with her in order to talk to God, but now she tried envisioning God sitting in front of her wherever she was, eager to listen to everything in her heart. Keanakay began talking to God all day, every day. She talked to Him while doing the laundry, while she was cooking, when she was frustrated about something, when she was happy. In this way, she daily and unceasingly tested that Scripture is true. Change didn’t come overnight, but the more Keanakay prayed, the more thanksgiving poured out of her lips and nourished her soul and renewed her mind.
“I thought I could be transformed all of a sudden. But it’s a gentle, gradual process of submitting to God until you don’t even realize you’ve been transformed,” Keanakay told me as I sat at her dining table, watching her wash the dishes. “That’s the only reason why I was able to come to a place of full submission to God. I couldn’t understand why God was letting all this happen. But instead of getting angry at God, it gave me so much peace to just ask Him, ‘What do You want me to do?’”
And her daughter is picking up her mother’s faith. When things go wrong, sometimes the girl reminds her mother, “Mommy, it’ll be OK. You need to pray. Let’s pray!” Keanakay has noticed that whenever her daughter gets upset, the girl clenches her little fists up to her chest, squeezes her eyes shut, and cries, “Oh Jesus, I’m so mad! Oh Jesus, I need you! Please help me, God!” It’s the same cry that Keanakay makes whenever she gets upset and feels pushed to the edge with nobody to catch her but God: “Oh help me, Jesus! Oh help me, Jesus!”
Her daughter now exclaims, “Oh help me, Jesus!” even in the littlest things. Once, she shook her fists and cried to Jesus when the TV wasn’t working, and Keanakay pointed out that the cord was unplugged: “Look, all you need to do is plug that in. You don’t need to call out to Jesus.” Her daughter looked at her with indignation and said, “Well, you talk to God about everything, too!”
There could be worse things to learn from a mother. The Scotts will be all right.