By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Getting the keys to a new home is an exciting time for anyone, but it meant so much more for local mom Latesha Royster. Royster had been on a roller coaster of homelessness, mental health issues and other assorted crises, before moving into a housing complex for women who have been unhoused. Russell Stiger, Jr., OBSERVER.

Latesha Royster moved to Sacramento about seven years ago with her then four-year-old daughter, Mirage. Royster had never been out of Oakland and didn’t know much else. 

“It’s rough out there and I started to get into too much trouble,” Royster said, so she had to get out of dodge.

Her trouble included being in a gang and prostitution. Wanting to leave that lifestyle behind, Royster took her child, got on a Greyhound bus and headed to South Sacramento. Much of her family was already living in the area and rents were cheaper than in the Bay Area. When she arrived, she lived with an adult niece, who had her own apartment and was willing to let Royster stay until she got on her feet and found a place of her own.

She was excited to find  a cute little apartment in the North area that was two bedrooms for only $700 a month.  “I was like, ‘Mirage, I can get used to this. Yeah, we did it.’” 

Unfortunately for Royster, trouble soon moved in and took up residence.

“I fell back and I’d never done hard drugs before, but being over there off of El Camino, it was bad to where I started experimenting with methamphetamines. I fell into the cracks and I feel like my life has been going downhill ever since.”

Royster was dealing with an abusive relationship. She also deals with mental health issues and the medicines she took for epilepsy complicated things. There was a police raid on her Del Paso Heights apartment and her moves back to the Bay didn’t last long. She also had herself committed to a mental hospital in Berkeley in order to get help for her addiction. She sent her daughter to stay with the cousin she’d originally lived with in Sacramento.  

During a therapy session at the mental hospital, Royster shared a story that led to her losing custody of her daughter to Child Protective Services. “One day Mirage told me, ‘it’s either the drugs or me,’” she recalls. 

In trying to get better, she spoke her truth. 

“I thought that this was a place where I could talk about whatever, just get it off my chest because I’m an honest person,” Royster said. “If it happened, it happened. I can’t take it back.”

She didn’t know the group facilitators were mandated reporters. After a month, Royster left the hospital and ended up staying in a motel in Stockton. Royster came back to Sacramento and had supervised visits with her daughter at a McDonald’s.  She moved into a room and board facility, but was kicked out for sneaking in her boyfriend, who was also homeless. She went to stay with the boyfriend, who was living in his sister’s garage.

“He made us a big old tent. We had electricity and everything, but we were still homeless,” Royster shared. 

The couple was soon displaced from there as well. 

“Me and him were homeless, staying in a car, we were sleeping at parks, then we got housed again,” she shared.

It was then that the coronavirus pandemic hit. Homeless advocates began posing the question of how do you shelter in place when you have unstable shelter. Telecare, an agency that provides recovery-focused services for persons with mental illness and complex needs, began paying most of Royster’s rent. That was around $1,000, she says, and with only her SSI check covering all the bills, the couple couldn’t afford the apartment and found themselves back on the street again.

They had a car at one point, but Royster’s boyfriend got into an accident. The vehicle was totalled and they couldn’t live in it anymore.

They slept in a field near Rainbow Park on Martin Luther King, Jr.  Boulevard. Living in an outdoor encampment was far from the dream she’d originally had for herself coming to Sacramento. She was also expecting a second child.

“Being pregnant and being homeless, man, it was not good,” Royster said. “I was trying to get Mirage back and I’m trying to stay on top of my mental meds.”

Royster was prescribed the antipsychotic medicine, Seroquel. The drug made her sleepy and she recalls waking up at times with strange men standing over her. “Luckily nobody hurt me, but just the fact that there’s another man just watching me sleep, it was scary,” she said.

Royster began to panic.

“How can I be out here homeless with a baby? Are they gonna take this baby? That’s what I was thinking,” she said. “I said God, please help me. Just give me a sign somewhere, somehow. I can’t lose this one too. We’ve got to get it together and keep the family together.”

The family would be dealt another blow when someone set fire to their tent space. They lost what possessions they’d acquired, including the futon bed that kept her from sleeping directly on the ground and all of her SSI paperwork.

When her daughter Miracle was born, the baby was placed in the hospital’s crisis nursery. Royster said it was then that she decided to kick the drugs and did so on her own, without rehab.

She also started working with navigators and community advocates with groups like the Sacramento Homeless Union, Sacramento Poor People’s Campaign and the Community Lead Advocacy Program (CLAP) who helped get her into the Project Room Key program that placed homeless people in area hotels during the pandemic. Things began to look up.

“I got Miracle back and she came to the hotel.”

Latesha Royster says she’s determined to make a better life for her two young daughters than she had growing up in prostitution and gangs. Royster wants to help women with similar backgrounds and tells them to not be ashamed of their stories, to use them to motivate themselves and others. Russell Stiger, Jr., OBSERVER.

After three or four months participating in Project Room Key, Royster moved into a local housing complex with the help of Telecare Arise last December. The complex arose from a motel that was torn down to create apartments. 

“Everybody here has been homeless with a mental illness,” Royster shared.

To help out, the Sacramento Poor People’s Campaign and the Sacramento Area Black Caucus adopted the Royster family during this past holiday season, gifting them with everything from a turkey and a Christmas tree to educational toys, a bed and items for their kitchen and bathroom.

Royster still volunteers to help out the unhoused. She joins groups in passing out tents and bringing pop-up COVID-19 vaccination clinics to homeless encampments. She also picks up hygiene products at the store to give out. 

“I’m mostly looking for the women near me,” she said. “Most of them are prostitutes and I’ve been there too, so I sit and I talk to them and we eat lunch. Some of them are not willing to talk as much, so I just sit by them and I just say ‘God bless.’”

If someone has a need, she’ll do her best to give, as others gave to her. “I know what it’s like to be a Black woman on the street. None of us are perfect.”

Royster is happy to be in a better space, figuratively and physically.

“We’ve been making it and I can honestly say that I am blessed and I don’t mind giving other people resources and telling them about Zuri (Colbert, of CLAP) and Ms. Faye (Kennedy, with Sacramento Poor People’s Campaign).  I don’t mind doing little events with the vaccines and just being a part of the whole movement. I really do. I finally found what I love to do,” she said.

Royster dreams of opening a resource center where sex workers can “come and feel free and not feel judged.” Having walked in their shoes, she understands them and how a place like that could impact their lives.

“My mom was a prostitute and my dad was a pimp. In his mind, it’s nothing wrong and it was kind of a bad tradition at 12. That’s when I started at 12. That’s when my sisters started and at 12 my daughter doesn’t do it because we’re breaking that cycle.”

Today, Royster is enjoying the joys of being sober and being the mom of two.

“Every day Miracle tells me how proud she is of me, how she loves me. I can’t wait until Miracle says it.”

Editor’s Note: It seems you can’t go 50 feet in Sacramento without seeing evidence of the city’s homeless crisis. It’s hard to miss as more encampments pop up just about everywhere, every day.  We see the makeshift spaces and the garbage and may even comment on how much of a blight they are to the areas where we live and work, but oftentimes we don’t see the people behind those tarps and tents.  With “Street Stories,” The OBSERVER is sharing stories of area women who are experiencing homelessness or are working to help others who are unhoused.