FCYU127 cover image See all stories from issue #127, Winter 2017

Broken Homes
Zaniyah (Yaselin) Solis

When I was 9, my dad left because my mom caught him cheating, so it was just my mom, my two younger siblings, and me. After my dad left, I no longer felt like I had a home where I belonged. My dad gave me a sense of security because he accepted me as I am, and still does, though I haven’t seen him in 10 years. We keep in touch via phone and text, however, and he accepts that I am a lesbian.

Around the time my father left, my mother began to abuse me. I looked like him, so maybe that’s why she was so angry at me. She said I should have told her about my dad’s affair. Her way of “disciplining” me was to beat me, stab me, and burn my hands.

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I went into care when I was 11. I was bounced around from foster home to foster home to a TBH (therapeutic boarding home) to psych hospitals to RTFs (residential treatment facilities) to group homes. I didn’t feel accepted in any of my placements. So I ran away from nearly every foster home and group home.

I would have liked to have been adopted, but my being gay turned a lot of people off, so I kept moving around, signed myself out of care, became homeless, signed myself back in. I didn’t graduate high school. I got closer and closer to aging out and didn’t know where I’d live.

Different Identities

When I was 18, I moved into a group home in Brooklyn. I got along with staff, but there was a lot of drama with the other girls in the house, so I AWOLed a lot. My favorite staff member Izzy called me “Age Progression” because every time I AWOLed, I would come back looking completely different.

I went through a lot of different looks and even names. I felt like I had no identity because I didn’t belong anywhere. Looking back, I think maybe I used different names and had different styles to figure out who I was. My main alias is Serenity. I used her to hide me overall, so as Serenity I wore whatever made me comfortable.

My identity was especially confusing because I feel more masculine than feminine, but I had been pregnant several times and had miscarriages.

A year before my 21st birthday, as I wondered where I would live, it hit me: I should have a baby. That would give me a home. If home wasn’t with my mom, dad, and siblings, then I would create my own version of home. I had a fiancée at the time, and she was OK with me having sex with a guy to get pregnant.

A friend of my fiancee’s, named Smiley, added me on Facebook. We became friends, and I noticed we had an attraction. I told him that I wanted a baby and nothing else. By the time I got pregnant, however, my fiancée and I had broken up.

Pregnant and Homeless

I AWOLed from foster care because I feared that Child Protective Services (CPS) would try to take my daughter as soon as she was born. I went to live with Smiley and his cousin Shannon and her husband. I paid Shannon $200 a month for about three months. I didn’t have a job, but I got money from SSI for mental health issues. But then Shannon raised my rent and started harassing me about paying her the moment my SSI check came in.

Smiley and I moved in with another one of his cousins, Mookie. But soon after, Smiley ran off and left us. I didn’t know where he was. Mookie is an alcoholic, and one night he blacked out and attacked me. I begged him to stop but he kept hitting me until he passed out. I cried in the corner until daybreak; then I went to stay with a friend of a friend.

Through my old foster care agency, I had a caseworker named Simone. She helped me sign back into foster care. She helped me get admitted to Bethany II, a home for mothers and children in foster care in Queens.

At first, I didn’t want to go to Bethany because I wanted my own apartment for me, my baby, and whatever woman I got together with next. But I am glad I went to Bethany. I learned a lot there. I needed them to help me prepare for my daughter because deep inside I was scared about her arrival. My life had been chaotic for years, and I was used to fighting authority figures and running away. I had trouble imagining myself giving a baby a stable home.

Family-Like Support

image by YC-Art Dept

I learned different ways to cope with a baby such as taking time outs, putting yourself in the baby’s shoes, and learning that a baby has different cries. Bethany gave me the structure that I needed and taught me to ask for help. Once I got used to the routine and the staff, I started to love Bethany.

Bethany didn’t look like a group home. It had a foyer, a big dining room, two refrigerators, and a living room on the second floor. It was actually one of the best homes I had ever been in.

The Bethany staff were more of a family than I thought I would get in foster care. I became more compliant in my seventh month. I didn’t do it for me; I did it for Aasyiah. (I’d picked out the name even before I was pregnant, in a book of Arabic names for girls.)

But as my 21st birthday and Aasyiah’s birth day approached, I knew I’d need to get housing. You can only stay at Bethany till you turn 21, though they give extensions to women who are waiting for housing. I waddled to my interview for public housing at about eight and a half months pregnant. The lady asked which borough I wanted to live in, and I said Manhattan. Now it was just a waiting game.

I had my daughter on March 19, 2015, via C-section, three months before my 21st birthday. The first time I locked eyes with my baby I felt the need to let go of my anger and all the things that had happened to me that caused that anger—abuse, rape, foster care. As the snow fell outside, I held her and felt some peace and closure.

The Rules Tighten

But we still faced a tough reality. Though we had a group home to call “home,” we still didn’t have a home of our own.

While I waited for our public housing to come through, I was grateful to be at Bethany and get help with my new baby. A staff named Jonelle greeted Aasyiah and me when we arrived from the hospital. Jonelle was like a mother figure to me so Aasyiah was like her grandchild. She gave me tips on how to nurse and made sure that I was putting Aasyiah in her crib properly, nursing her on time, and eating enough. She and another staff, Maria, helped me by watching Aasyiah when I was going through postpartum depression.

I went to court on my 21st birthday and got my stay in care extended three months. At Bethany, the rules tightened after that birthday: If I AWOLed or was even late, I’d be discharged. That made me feel un-free, and I wanted to bust out of foster care forever. The help was nice and I am forever grateful for them, but I was ready to be on my own. I also started dating my current girlfriend, Haze, around my birthday, so I knew I wouldn’t be alone in an apartment with my baby.

Aasyiah was about 3 months old when I got the call to view my apartment. I walked in and saw a spacious one-bedroom apartment with big windows. I immediately saw myself and Aasyiah—and Haze—living there.

I said to the woman showing it, “Yes, I will take it. What do you want to secure the apartment?” She smiled and told me she needed the security deposit in a week. I got about $1,700 in furniture money from ACS when I left Bethany. That covered the security deposit, my couch, my bed, and my dresser and a dresser for Aasyiah. The Bethany staff surprised me with gifts like dishes and silverware. They gave me food when I moved in and helped me set up Aasyiah’s crib.

Cracked Walls, But a Whole Family

By the time we moved in, Aasyiah was about six months old and Haze and I were about three months into our relationship and falling hard. Even though we hadn’t moved the furniture in yet, I was happy because I finally had a place to call home. I walked around the spacious apartment and started thinking about where I could put things and where I would spend my time. I had my own keys, and I had the acceptance of my daughter and my girlfriend.

NYCHA, New York City’s public housing, is a good deal: I pay 30% of my SSI payments for rent. But sometimes you get what you pay for. Only three months after I moved in, a crack in the corner of my kitchen ceiling expanded, and a huge chunk of plaster crashed onto the floor. I complained to NYCHA, and they took pictures, but never came back to fix it. My kitchen sink has a crack now, and same thing: They looked at it and said, “We will be back.” They never came back. My bathroom has a leak that NYCHA won’t fix either.

I get tired of looking at all the things that need to be fixed. I am embarrassed to have anyone come visit me because my apartment looks like it’s falling apart. I grabbed the apartment fast because I was aging out of care, and now I feel like I have no leverage to get the landlord to make any of the repairs. I’ve tried to make it more homey for the three of us by creating a word wall and an abstract mural in my bedroom, but it’s frustrating not to have any control over the place I live in.

And yet, I’ve also learned that home isn’t just a place to stay. I’ve always longed for love and acceptance, and someone to share a home with. And now I have that. My daughter and Haze are what I need to feel at home. Sharing a space with them, despite its flaws, is what makes my home home.

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