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

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Nowhere to Go
How I lifted myself out of homelessness once and for all
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 motivated me to move. (I identify as gay.) My parents, particularly my mother, did not want me to come to the U.S., but they ultimately accepted, even supported, my decision.

Life in high school in Mexico had been really difficult for me because of my sexual orientation. I was taunted and ridiculed and the bullies did not stop even when my teachers were present. No one stood up for me so I grew up in isolation and with almost no friends. I didn’t know any other gay people and my small town of Morelos didn’t have Internet.

I was hopeful that going to high school in New York would be different. I had been told that the U.S. was a place free of discrimination, and I was excited to learn English. But when my aunt took me to the local school to register me, I was turned away. The school administrator said that since I did not have immunization records and my aunt did not have custody of me, I could not enroll.

My aunt decided that it would be best if I started to work. I had borrowed money from her to get to the U.S., so I thought paying her back was the least I could do. I started working as a dishwasher.

A Friend’s Couch

But within three months of moving in with my aunt, things started to change. She was verbally abusive and intimidating, and I feared that she was going to become physically abusive toward me. One day we got into an altercation and she kicked me out.

I had nowhere to go, but I had made a friend, Laura, a few weeks earlier. I knew where she spent time so I went looking for her. When I found her I told her what happened and asked her if I could stay with her that night. She agreed. The next day Laura asked me if I wanted to stay longer and I said yes.

Laura had a one-bedroom apartment. She slept in the bedroom while I slept on a couch in the living room. She did not charge me rent and provided me with food. She gave me some of her clothes since I did not have any of my own. After a month I knew it was time for me to contribute to the rent.

But soon after, a man started lurking around my job and watching me. I suspected that my aunt had asked the guy to do it, but I couldn’t prove it. It scared me enough that I quit the job and got another dishwashing job, but the same thing began to happen. I worried that this person was going to try to hurt me, so I quit again.

Acceptance at a Group Home

When I quit that job I began to feel hopeless. I worried that I was not going to be able to pay rent and that Laura might ask me to leave. I felt extremely vulnerable. Feelings of loneliness and hopelessness began to creep in. I became increasingly depressed. At 16 I felt my life was not worth living. I decided to end my life by swallowing a bottle of pills.

My suicide attempt didn’t succeed. I ended up in the hospital and, two weeks later, I was transferred to a mental health institution where I was treated for depression. The Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) took over my case and when I left the hospital two months later, 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 began to accept myself for who I was and noticed that other people started to accept me too.

But soon I realized that as a recent immigrant, being in care was going to be daunting. The first problem was that I only spoke Spanish, and the staff spoke English. I wanted to go to school to learn English but I felt discouraged by my previous experience trying to enroll in public school. A staff member at my group home decided that it would be best if I attended an alternative school where I could take classes and prepare for the GED test.

I obtained my GED, completed the highest level of ESL classes, and managed, with the help of ACS, to apply for a green card.

image by YC-Art Dept

A False Sense of Security

Then I aged out of foster care at 21 and secured my own 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 legal assistant at a nonprofit organization that specialized in educational advocacy 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 as the year progressed I began to fall behind on my rent. Though I was working, 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.

One December night after coming home from class, I discovered that the landlord had changed the locks. I’d been evicted. It must have been 9 p.m. and I didn’t know where to go. My immediate thought was to ride the subway all night since subway cars have heat and that at least would keep me warm. But the thought of being assaulted by strangers or being arrested by the police for sleeping on a subway car made me change my mind.

Then I thought about Penn Station, since I remembered seeing people waiting for their train in the waiting area. At 2 a.m. I found myself ready to go to sleep on a bench. But then a railroad worker asked me for my ticket. I pretended to look for it in my bag, though it was clear I did not have one. The worker asked that I purchase a new ticket or get off the bench, which I did because I did not have any money.

A Hard Floor as a Bed

After I was asked to leave the waiting area I began to walk around. By 3 a.m. I was exhausted. All I wanted to do was close my eyes and get some sleep. I tried sleeping on the floor 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.

I slept in the office for more than two weeks until a colleague learned about my housing situation and invited me to stay on her couch. She knew I had not been sleeping well and wanted to help. Though I was happy I’d be sleeping in a warm place, she said I could only stay with her for one night because her apartment was too small. That was the first time in two weeks that I actually slept. Though I had tried to sleep in the office, the lack of heat and the hard floor, plus the fear that someone could break in, made it impossible for me to rest fully.

Despite my housing instability I kept going to work and school because those were the only places that kept me sane and made me forget, although temporarily, about my homelessness. But not having an adequate place to stay 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 that could make things worse by hindering my ability to think positively and my desire to succeed.

After two months I saved enough money to move into a basement room. Slowly I began to regain my footing. Sharing a room with other people 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 college, I graduated with an associate’s degree in international relations. I’m now preparing to transfer to a four-year university and obtain a bachelor’s degree in the same field and, subsequently, attend graduate school and pursue a master’s in public affairs or public policy.

My belief in education remains an important part of my life. My previous job, which I held for five years, involved working on educational rights with school districts, social service providers, and families. One of the issues I worked on was the right of students who are homeless or living in temporary housing to attend school. Under a federal law called the McKinney-Vento Act, schools have to ensure that homeless students can immediately enroll.

Having experienced homelessness multiple times makes me understand the importance of this law and the work I do around educational advocacy. Now more than ever I have come to understand why stability, at home and at school, is crucial to the success of homeless children and those in foster care. Stability, I learned, can provide you with a sense of normalcy even if your life is far from normal. My life is the perfect example of that.

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(NYC-2015-03-12)

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