IN 2000, I WAS a single mother of one - and homeless.

It was July, I'd just turned 21 and my daughter was 2 years old.

I found myself on Cherry Street at 5:30 a.m., standing in line outside the doors of the Office of Services to Homeless Adults. I had my daughter in a stroller and a bookbag on my back. I packed light that day, leaving everything else behind. Only God knew that I carried so much baggage inside my soul that I couldn't handle being weighed down with too much luggage.

I was finally able to get inside the doors. As I sat and waited for my name to be called, I began to watch others. Some with suitcases and some with trash bags. Some came with just the clothes on their backs. Many waited days to be placed in a shelter. For some, like myself, it was their first time. But no matter what the situation was, we all had one thing in common.

We were homeless.

Being homeless is a severe pain, a feeling of hopelessness and loneliness.

Later that day, I was placed at the St. Barnabas Mission shelter at 60th and Girard. I was unable to sleep that night from the many cries of my daughter, uncomfortable with sleeping in a room with at least 20 families. I held her tight as the tears ran down my face.

Every day I would wake up at 6 a.m. I would walk the streets of West Philadelphia. And as I walked, I would talk to God. I would dream and hope of a better life for me and my daughter. I began to totally dedicate myself to God.

I joined a church, Deliverance House of God, Prayer for All People. I was surrounded by positive and loving people. I wasn't judged by my situation. The positive influences in my life at that time allowed me to begin to love myself.

Yes, I loved me without - or with, one might say - "nothing." And that was the best thing I could have ever done for myself. Love is free. I didn't have to beg for it. I did not have to sell my soul for it.

To love myself at the lowest point of my life gave me joy, peace and dignity. No matter what anyone thought of me. Love allowed me to be free from internal bondage and self-inflictions. Love was my foundation to a better life.

I was then blessed with employment at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I was hired as a seasonal employee. And a few months later, I was hired as a permanent employee.

I give much thanks to the museum. I was able to get an apartment. And slowly my life began to change for the good.

I would never have thought I would be writing this essay - reflecting back on those times, and giving input to help Philadelphians understand the challenges of being homeless, although what I have experienced in no way compares to what thousands of others face daily.

Many sleep outside and have nothing to eat. Many feel as though they cannot hope or dream any longer.

Along with the programs already in place, I believe we need to give hope, to give love. That is what is going to set a solid foundation for one's life to change. To encourage people who have overcome homelessness to be speakers and hold seminars. And to be an inspiration to other homeless individuals and families. We need people to hug and embrace the ones who are without.

To have a new house or an apartment is good. But if the inside of a man or woman's soul is still empty, lost or depressed, then no change has been done. Change begins in the soul and state of mind. I say we begin by building a foundation of love, hope and self-esteem. A strong foundation can never be broken.

SO, TODAY, I stand humbly before the homeless. I will bring inspiration, my love and my tears. I cry with you. I will stretch out my heart, which leads me to stretch out my hand, hoping you take it. I stretch my soul, my strength to volunteer, to give, to help in my community. To serve from the path I once walked. I will stand to help face the challenges of the Philadelphia homeless community.

Psalm 34: 6-7: "This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles. *

"The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear him and delivereth them."

Oneisha Johnson lives in Philadelphia.