The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Not Just a Group House, A Way of Life
Natasha Santos

Last year, I needed a place to live. I’d been staying at my adoptive mother’s house for a year because it was the only place that took IOU’s and didn’t require a deposit. I couldn’t afford to live alone, but after a year at my mom’s I couldn’t tolerate the loss of privacy and autonomy. I’d landed a job that paid an almost livable wage, and I was eager to see what $700 a month could get me in Brooklyn, New York.

My criteria were simple. I wanted to live with at least three other people who believed in pooling resources and with whom I could form bonds. And they couldn’t be certifiable.

I am 28 now an d have experienced many different living situations. Before I was adopted, at age 16, I lived in six different foster homes. After high school, I went out on my own.

In college, I lived in a crappy apartment off-campus with two friends whose idea of community was using my things while rationing out the amount of toilet paper they bought. I lived in other group situations after that, boomeranging back to my mother’s apartment in New York City several times.

It wasn’t just money that ruled out living alone. A few years ago, I took a job in Oregon, and I lived there by myself for almost a year. Coming home to an empty house was too quiet, lonely, and creepy. I was used to the noise and energy of a big family. So roommates were a must.

I wanted to surround myself with people who agreed that sharing things like food, toilet paper, and time together was important. Pooling resources is important to me, as I don’t have much money or many people I can rely on to help me in a jam. What I do have I am willing to share, and I was looking for roommates who were into splitting more than just rent.

I began on Craigslist. There were a lot of postings, and I visited many of them. There were a few places where I felt like the people and I would gel, but everyone seemed adamant about splitting only rent and nothing else. I began asking friends for leads on places and for online resources for apartment/roommate hunting.

Communal Living

Someone suggested I try a Facebook group called Queer Exchange. Scrolling through the page, I found more than 13,000 people buying, selling, trading, and looking for things in the city. This was my first glimpse into communal communities in New York City. One roommate post, for a place called Divine Haus, caught my attention:

Housemates share values that include community, social justice, and responsible food practices. Our community highly values working as individuals and collective members on non-violent communication, personal growth work, conflict resolution, consensus building, anti-racism, and anti-oppression work. We support one another and hang out together! We have spontaneous kitchen dance parties, play games, cook all kinds of foods, throw potlucks, throw elaborate house parties and have movie nights.

Haus is the German word for house. I learned by poking around Queer Exchange that it signifies the communal type of living situation I was looking for.

image by YC-Art Dept

The application process was interesting. I filled out a Google form questionnaire that included paragraph answers and multiple choice. Then there were three rounds of group interviews. I made it to the second. I’m not sure why I wasn’t picked; maybe I was too enthusiastic or green or uncool, whatever. But the rejection email from the Divine Haus members included links to Facebook groups that focused on collective housing in the city and ways to start your own. It made the taste of “no” a bit less bitter—and led to my finding the house I have lived in for a year and a half.

Our Haus

I love telling people about where I live. It’s a big Pepto Bismol-pink house in Crown Heights on a narrow street surrounded by bodegas, children playing tag and racing in the street, homeless people, drug dealers, feral cats, and older women watching everything go down from their windows. The red and blue of police lights rushing from one emergency to another is a night light that I grew up with. The outside of my place feels familiar and safe. The inside is the new terrain: Of my eight roommates, four were stable and four changed every three months or so.

It works because we are all committed to building a home together and helping each other navigate tough situations and life choices. Like: Is it OK to eat chicken that’s a little pink? (It isn’t.) We help each other figure out relationships and gender identities. We encourage each other to “live your truth” and to create a meaningful career. I’ve never felt more at home and connected to such a diverse group of people.

We range in age from 21 to 28 and come from different socio-economic, racial, and religious backgrounds. From a Park Slope-raised, Ivy League-educated journalist to a Jewish, blond-haired, blue-eyed West Coast medical student to me, a former foster kid turned advocate/writer, turned whatever it is I am now. For a while I was the only black person living there. Then my friend moved in, and she vouched for another roommate whose parents came here from Africa before she was born.

It’s a great opportunity for us to get out of our bubbles and see the world from someone else’s experiences. One of my roommates was a spiritual person from Tennessee who I could speak to about life transitions and tarot cards. Another, a dancer from Denmark, was so great at navigating romantic relationships I felt like I should have taken notes.

On Sundays we have our potluck community dinner/haus meeting where we discuss our lives, and who cooked what for dinner. It’s a time where we come together and commit to building something positive with one another. This living situation works for me because I really want that. I’ve always wanted that, even before I could
name it.

Values to Live By

So I was distressed a few months ago when a few of the seven haus members (down from nine because we stopped renting out the basement) said they wanted to end our community. They didn’t feel as if we were holding to collective ideals. The situation created a divide between the “stays” and the “gos.”

I was a strong voice for staying together. And although we’d had disagreements on what “clean” means and how to be inclusive of the Crown Heights community while being aware of how we contributed to gentrification, I was sure we could work through it. So the seven of us got together on a Saturday morning to discuss what we felt, what we wanted, and why. Some people said they felt isolated, and others expressed despair over a decision they felt had already been made for them. We processed it together and ended up being able to preserve our community, after figuring out ways for more inclusion and better communication.

Figuring things out as a group is not something I experienced growing up in care. There, decisions were made for me or in spite of me. Communicating from a place of honesty and openness to what other people feel and think has been healing for me. I feel more listened to and supported than I ever have.

My history is littered with heartbreaking exits from homes, families, and schools. It feels great to come home to a group of people who take my wishes into account and with whom I feel safe. It’s not how long I’ve known the people I share a haus with that makes me feel comfortable—it’s the shared values and the commitment to each other. It’s the closest to having a family that I’ve known since venturing out on my own as a 19-year-old. Without knowing it, I was always looking for this.

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