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Choosing My Neighborhood
Vanessa
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When I was 16, I arrived in the United States to live with my aunt. I am originally from Mexico, but poverty and the constant fear that I would be persecuted due to my sexual orientation and gender identity motivated me to move. (I identify as transgender.) My parents, particularly my mother, did not want me to come to the U.S., but they ultimately accepted and even supported my decision.

Soon after I arrived, however, my aunt became abusive and kicked me out. I stayed with a friend for a while, but felt guilty that I couldn’t pay her any rent. I had to quit my job as a dishwasher because a man at the restaurant threatened me. I felt extremely vulnerable. Feelings of loneliness and hopelessness began to creep in. At 16, I felt my life was not worth living. I decided to end my life by swallowing a bottle of pills.

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I ended up in the hospital and was then transferred to a mental health institution where I was treated for depression. Child Protective Services (CPS) took over my case. When I left the hospital, I was placed in foster care and put in a group home where several other teens lived along with staff.

Being in foster care was not something I’d planned on. At first, I was excited to be moving into a stable home: I had been told I would be sharing the house with other LGBTQ youth. For the first time, I felt accepted for my sexuality and gender identity.

But soon I realized that, as a recent immigrant who spoke only Spanish, foster care was going to be challenging. A staff member at my group home steered me to an alternative school where I could take classes and prepare for the GED test.

During my time in care, I obtained my GED, completed the highest level of ESL classes, and managed, with the help of CPS, to apply for a green card.

A False Sense of Security

Then I aged out of foster care at 21 and secured my own supportive housing apartment. I was happy to have my own place for the first time since I came to the U.S. It finally seemed like things were working out. I got a job as a paralegal at a nonprofit organization, and I earned a decent salary. I also began taking night classes at a community college. At that point, it seemed like I was on my way to beating the odds and overcoming poverty.

But my apartment was depressing. Many of the other people living in the building were mentally or physically ill, and the halls smelled like bleach. It reminded me of the mental hospital. I didn’t like being in a big elevator building, and my apartment was dark. I got depressed, and that probably hurt my decision-making.

As the year progressed, I began to fall behind on my rent. I paid only 30% of my income for the apartment, but my salary, as much as I tried to stretch it, did not cover all of my expenses. College books—even used ones—were expensive. Unexpected expenses such as medical bills also made it hard for me to pay my rent in full. I had a case manager, but I didn’t want to seek therapy or rent help through a place that made me feel like a mental patient. I fell several thousand dollars behind in rent and came home one December night to find I’d been evicted.

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By 3 a.m. that night, I was exhausted. All I wanted to do was close my eyes and get some sleep. I tried sleeping at Penn Station, but it was impossible with all the people coming and going. At last, I armed myself with enough courage and decided to go to the office where I worked. I was scared. I knew it would be dark and there would be no heat. But I had no other options.

Despite my housing instability, I kept going to work and school, because those were the only places that kept me sane. At school and work, I could forget about my homelessness for a while. But not having a home took a toll on me. My grades began to suffer. There were weeks when I did not shower because I had no place to bathe.

The office seemed better than staying in a shelter. I had plenty of space to study and I could walk around as I pleased on the weekends when no one else was there. Still, I began to feel as though I needed to get out of that situation before I became depressed. I knew depression could make things worse by hindering my ability to think positively and my desire to succeed.

Roommates

After two months, I saved enough money to rent a basement room in an apartment with several other people. Slowly, I began to regain my footing. Sharing a place also helped me feel less alone. There were still times when I didn’t have food or money, but this time I had close relationships with people at work and other people I had met through the volunteer work I did with mental health organizations. These individuals helped me financially and emotionally.

I never stopped working or going to school. My persistence paid off when, two years after I started working at my organization, I got promoted to a new position that came with a better salary and health insurance. A few months later, I moved into a bigger room where I had access to the internet (this allowed me to conduct research, among other things, to complete school assignments).

Five years after I started community college, I graduated with an associate’s degree in international relations. I am now attending a four-year college where I am pursuing a bachelor’s degree in public policy and political science. After I graduate, I plan to attend graduate school and pursue a master’s in public policy or international development.

I learned that I value options when it comes to choosing where I live. I’m grateful for supportive housing, which helped me when I first aged out. There also needs to be more subsidized public housing in New York City, especially for those who have few, if any, support systems.

But it wasn’t where I wanted to live. For me, splitting costs with roommates to live in regular, market-rate apartments felt better than passively waiting to be assigned to a neighborhood and a building.

I personally have been much happier in apartments I chose in neighborhoods I like. I also like living with roommates who I’m accountable to. Since that first supportive housing placement, I’ve rented only market-rate apartments, and I’ve never fallen behind in my rent. To choose where I live empowers me, just like getting promoted to better jobs does. Together, those two things have helped me move up the ladder to the life I want.

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(FCYU-2017-01-12)