Mitch Albom: Giving shelter, from a shelter, a mother earns this special day

Mitch Albom
Detroit Free Press

She will get no flowers today. No brunch at a trendy restaurant. Celest Laurry will wake up early in the lower half of a bunk bed and see her two teenage daughters, honor roll kids in high school, tucked in another bunk bed in an adjacent room. The walls are plain white. The floor is tan tile. The bathroom is down the hallway, and they will all rise early to shower because, as one of the daughters says, “You want to get in there before a lot of other people do and it gets dirty.”

They live in a shelter. They have since last fall. They are a family like many other families in a city like many other cities, hit hard by a pandemic and struggling with the collateral damage of broken lives. And while today is a Hallmark moment for the more fortunate across this country, for Celest and her daughters, it’s just another Sunday amongst the homeless.

Happy Mother’s Day.

“My kids know it’s not permanent,” Laurry, 47, says. “They know when this is all over, we’re going to have our own place somewhere.”

Do they ask when you’re going to get out?

“Oh yeah. All the time.”

Don’t be misled. This is not a story of irresponsibility, drugs, foolish habits. This is a story of poverty, a root problem in America that often gets overlooked for louder battles of identity politics and culture wars.

Celest Laurry had a job, many of them. She had a place to live. Here is the common tale she tells: She trained as a medical assistant, worked in group homes and private homes, helped people with everything from health issues to cooking.

When COVID-19 tackled the country, people didn’t want outsiders coming in. She lost her work. She fell behind on her rent. She applied for help from CERA (COVID Emergency Rental Assistance) but when it didn’t come fast enough, she moved her family to a shelter last October because she feared her landlord would lock her out “and I would lose all my things.”

Then she was told, by voluntarily moving out, “that CERA couldn’t help me with the back rent.”

She has been in the shelter ever since.

Children excel despite circumstances

What’s remarkable about Celest Laurry, who currently stays at the COTS Peggy’s Place facility on Wyoming and McNichols, isn’t her backstory. Sadly, that’s all too common. What’s remarkable is how she and her daughters have weathered it.

Rahmani, 14, attends the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy where she does very well. She is on two sports teams, is part of a highly touted photography project “Capturing Belief” at the SAY Play Center at Lipke Park, and is involved in FATE, which develops students‘ leadership skills by working on marketing projects with community groups.

Rahmyza, 16, is a 4.0 student at the Detroit School of Arts. She’s been invited to join her school’s franchise of the National Honor Society. She designs posters, has earned summer scholarships to the College of Creative Studies, and teaches at clinics with Detroit PAL.

Perhaps most impressive, she has a perfect attendance record at school. That’s difficult to pull off even when your parents drive you every morning in an SUV. But Celest doesn’t have a car — another casualty of poverty — so the family goes everywhere by bus or scheduled pickup.

“My mom does so much for us,” Rahmani says. “Even though we’re living in a shelter, we don’t need an alarm clock. She wakes us up early every morning, makes sure we go to school, makes sure we get good grades and that we always try hard in everything we do.”

When asked what she loves most about her mother, Rahmani says, “How hard she works to try and find us a home.”

The power of a mother's love

On any given night in America, a half a million people go homeless, including nearly 60,000 families. Only two out of three homeless people are in shelters. The rest are on the street. And because the street people are the ones the public frequently encounters, misconceptions easily form. You know the stereotype. Substance abusers. Mentally ill. Panhandlers. And with that stereotyping, perhaps because we don’t want to know any better, comes the blame game: they brought it on themselves.

No, they didn’t. Not people like Celest Laurry. Not children like Rahmani and Rahmyza. They didn’t bring homelessness on themselves any more than the guy who works hard every day and gets laid off anyhow brought it on himself.

Sudden poverty is a wild ocean. When it gets ahold of you, it tests your character. Your inner strength. Do you keep pushing to return to a life above water, or do you sink?

People like Celest and her daughters keep pushing. Celest has an older daughter who is finishing her studies at Michigan State. That girl’s father died when the child was young. Rahmani and Rahmyza’s father, Celeste says, “is not part of their lives.”

So she does this alone, another too common tale. She doesn’t complain.

“When the girls were younger, I taught them at home along with school. I taught them how to write in cursive. I taught them to read out loud. I taught them to just love holding a book.

“I want them to have a different life than I had. I want to see them graduating with honors, wearing the honors colors around their neck. And going to college.”

If that sounds a lot like the goals of well-to-do suburban parent, well, that’s because it is. We are more alike than different. Our dreams for our children surpass money, status, even living conditions.

Today is the day we celebrate mothers. Here then, a nod to the ones you won’t see at the pancake houses, who won’t get a bouqet of flowers or a giant box with a red ribbon around it. 

“If I could get my mother anything for Mother’s Day,” Rahmani says, without hesitation, “I would get her a really nice house that’s fully paid off, so she doesn’t ever have to worry about living in a shelter again.”

She pauses.

“And a car.”

Dream on. Look to tomorrow. If the greatest gift our mothers give us is hope for the future, then Celest Laurry and others like her are doing it, despite all odds, in white-walled homeless shelters all across this country. They deserve our respect, and our applause.

Contact Mitch Albom: [email protected]. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.