Fifteen years ago when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, it displaced over a million people. For one of them, Deidra C. Thomas-Murray, it was the beginning of a journey she never could have imagined experiencing firsthand. A mother of three daughters, and a foster parent, Deidra and her family of 15 were left homeless, moving from a friend’s home in Baton Rouge to a shelter, and then crammed into a two-bedroom apartment in St. Louis.
“I was driving my mom back and forth to cancer treatments, all while experiencing homelessness at the same time. I never would have imagined it could happen to me,” she says.
Deidra wasn’t unfamiliar with homelessness—as she had been working with families and children experiencing it since she was 21, when she became a foster mom for the first time.
“I think I’m a pretty empathetic person, so it wasn’t like I was experiencing it the first time. Every time a family or parent I’m connected to experiences homelessness, it impacts me. So figuratively speaking, it wasn’t my first bout with it,” she says. “The irony of it was that I was with those families standing in the food stamp line. God has a strange sense of humor… the playing field was leveled.”
It was a humbling experience for Deidra, who soon after secured a job as a family therapist, and a few years later, as a homeless liaison for St. Louis Public Schools. Now, she and her team serve over 5,000 homeless children in a 22,000 student district. A lot of the work involves intervention and taking preventative measures to help the students succeed, whether it’s setting up back to school events where the children can receive medical, dental and vision care, shopping at their no-cost boutique, or simply making sure families are linked to the appropriate resources. For Deidra, she guides the process for families through ways of advocacy, empowerment and transformation.
“A lot of what we do is just show up for these kids. For them, seeing a familiar face makes a big difference. We are going to show up to their graduations, or just be there when someone needs to talk. For me, life is about making meaningful deposits into all your encounters” she says.
This year has provided new challenges for Deidra and her team, yet she remains encouraged and hopeful.
“We’ve built a sense of community here, and the parents keep calling and checking in, which is comforting,” she says.
On September 1, Deidra and other panelists will be speaking at our virtual event series: Partner4Impact, which will bring together experts leading conversations on homelessness in the U.S. To learn more, and sign up to attend here.