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

Home Is an Abstract Concept
Marlo Scott

Housing has always been an issue for me. Home was never one specific place, because I was shifted from my parents’ homes to foster homes to kinship care to residential treatment facilities to homeless shelters to friends’ houses to cars to dorms to rented rooms and back to shelters. My parents fought and separated a lot, so I also bounced back and forth between the two of them before my mom died.

When I was born, my mother and I lived in a mother-child shelter in Staten Island. After my younger brother was born, we three moved into a one-bedroom in Brownsville, Brooklyn, with my father. When my first sister was born, we left and moved to a two-bedroom in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. My earliest memory, from age 5, is in that apartment.

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My mom tried to make a home for us, but she also grew up without stability. She went into foster care when she was 9, after her mother died. She grew up around drug abusers and alcoholics. These influences led her to abusing drugs. She went in and out of rehabilitation centers.

Drug abuse led to violence, and when I was 5, Child Protective Services (CPS) removed my siblings and me from both parents because of their fighting. CPS placed us all with the same family. I felt relieved that I was able to stay with my siblings, but I still missed my mother. I was too young to know that she was a victim of domestic violence.

When I first went into foster care, I cried a lot because I hadn’t been apart from my mother before. Loneliness overwhelmed me. The foster care placement felt nothing like a home.

Two months later, my siblings and I went back with both parents. Living with her in Bed-Stuy was awesome, and that was the place that still feels more like home than anywhere else I have lived. It was my first (and last) memory of us being together as a complete family. My parents had just had my youngest sister, Ny-Asia, and things seemed to be going great.

Our living room had a soft, green couch you sank into. From it, you could see our small fireplace and a terrace out the window. I felt at peace there.

My mother was an excellent cook, and she used to have the entire neighborhood over every Friday for a fish fry. Whenever I felt sick, my mother would make chicken noodle soup that kept my chest warm. Her organization and her cleaning were almost OCD. I liked how clean and orderly she kept our home.

Goodbye to My Best Home

But in September 2000, my dad disappeared again and we had to move into a shelter in Queens called the Saratoga Family Inn. We all slept in one big room with two bunk beds and a twin bed. My brother and I slept on the top bunks, while my sisters slept below us, and mom had the twin. We could all see the television from our beds, and we kept each other company. My mom was an all-time great at the video game Sega Genesis, and my brother and I would try in vain to reach her high score.

Even in the shelter, my mother kept things so clean that we didn’t feel homeless. Since Dad was not around, I washed the dishes and took out the trash. I took my siblings to school and back. Making sure that the chores were done made me feel at home.

Next, we moved from the shelter to a public housing complex in Brooklyn called Hope Gardens. Leaving the shelter for a nice three-bedroom apartment gave all of us hope. While we were in the shelter, my father did not come around much. We saw him more after we moved to Hope Gardens, but that was not a plus. When my father was around, he often became violent and verbally abusive. Even though it became familiar, violence and fear does not make a house feel like a home.

When my mother felt hopeless, she would use drugs. A relapse caused the housing authority to evict her, and she spent two years in rehab. My brother and I moved to Albany into kinship care with one aunt, while my sisters moved to Maryland to live with a different aunt.
My brother and I moved from home to home while my sisters stayed in Maryland. My mother had five sisters, and my brother and I lived with four of them at various times.

My siblings and I didn’t attach to any of our aunts. They made us feel like their children were more important than we were. None of their houses was home.

When I was in 3rd grade, my brother and I lived with my grandfather. That was better because he had the most structure in his home. My grandfather taught me about the Bible. I helped him with his garden, and he helped me with my homework. We spoke about my future, and he was interested in what I had to say. But my grandfather got too old to take care of us, so my brother and I moved in with a maternal aunt and her two daughters.

In that home, I had to clean up after my cousins while they lounged around doing nothing. On top of feeling like an orphan, I had to cater to other people’s needs. No one there asked how I felt or what was on my mind. And then they got tired of us. My aunt said, “Go be with your father. We don’t want to be bothered with you.”

Except for my grandfather’s house, kinship care never felt like home because I could not relax or get comfortable. At my aunts’ places, I had to sleep on couches, and sometimes the floor.

When I was 9 or 10, my mom got out of rehab, and all four of us kids moved with her into a shelter. Soon after that, I realized she was sick, but I had no idea how sick. She died of cancer when I was 11, and I lived at an uncle’s house for the next two years, sharing a ripped inflatable bed (in other words, the floor) in the living room.

A Little Like College

To escape that, my brother and I moved in with my father in 2008, when I was 13. That was even worse. My father had no respect for other people’s boundaries. He had a one-bedroom, and my brother and I had to sleep in the same room with him. I had no privacy.

He also complained a lot, including late at night when my brother and I were trying to sleep. He would wake my brother and me up to rant about how the world hated him. He would yell and scream about things that happened years before I was born.

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Meanwhile, I got excellent grades and kept a summer job. He did not ask me about school and ranted away. I began to spend nights out, and even slept on the park bench at times to get away from my father. I got in trouble for several petty crimes and was sent to Graham Windham, a residential treatment facility for foster youth and juvenile delinquents.

The youth at Graham Windham lived in cottages. They were two-story houses with common spaces on the first floor and 10 bedrooms upstairs. Typically, residents shared rooms, so 25-30 kids lived in each cottage. I shared a double room with a boy named Anthony.

It was cool having a roommate. Anthony and I lived according to cottage rules, and we had respect for each other’s boundaries and space. We even worked out together before bedtime. This boosted our respect for each other, and I learned how to do pull-ups.

I did not miss my father and his nightly tirades. I did not have to sleep on couches and floors. I didn’t mind living with strangers. I felt like I was in college, living in a dorm.

When I was discharged from Graham, I briefly lived with my father again, but then he got evicted, and I found myself homeless soon after I started college. Living in a youth shelter made it hard to study, and my GPA fell. That meant I couldn’t qualify for a housing scholarship to pay for dorms. I moved into a youth shelter.

Don’t Depend on Anyone

Then I briefly stayed with a friend’s mom, which was great until my friend and I began to walk different paths. Our connection weakened. I was back to excelling in college, and my friend was struggling to complete high school. We stopped sharing our feelings and grew apart.

One day she said, “I don’t feel like I know who you are anymore.”

This made me upset and I said, “Well, maybe if you focused on educating yourself, you would understand who I am.”

Her mother broke up the argument and suggested I leave. She said, “I do not need any unnecessary controversy in my house.”

Since then, I don’t depend on anyone else for a place to live. I’ve stayed in moving mode; never getting too comfortable. Constantly moving made me feel uptight, because I could never chill out. I didn’t stop missing being at home with my mother. Whenever life got rough, I wondered why the only person who had my back died. It never made sense to me.

After leaving my friend’s, I went back to the youth shelter again. I felt more at peace there this time, because I felt I had a long-term plan. I worked harder in school, and I even was able to find a part-time job. In the second semester of sophomore year, I was able to boost my GPA above a 3.0 and qualify for multiple scholarships.

After the shelter, I lived in another dorm, crashed with a friend, and went back to the shelter. I turned 21, and soon after that graduated from college.

Then, just two weeks ago, at age 22, I finally got my own apartment, a three-bedroom that I share with one roommate. It was through a supportive housing program run by SCO, an agency that supports youth in care and young adults who have aged out.

The supportive housing program gives tenants a three-year lease, and after that you have to find another place to live. Now that I have my bachelor’s in accounting, I figure three years should be enough time to land a career job, pay off my college loans, and build my credit. Then I should be able to rent a regular, non-subsidized apartment.

Supportive housing is nicer than NYCHA housing. It’s not in the projects, but in a middle-class neighborhood in Queens. My roommate works overnight, so I rarely see him, and it feels like my own place.

I only have to pay 30% of my earnings for rent. This will allow me to budget and prepare for when I want to start a family. SCO provides housing essentials such as furniture and kitchenware so I do not have to worry about putting things together. They also have a maintenance team that keeps the property in tip-top shape.

Visions of Home

My second night in my apartment, I sat on the couch and reminisced about how my best friend used colors that illustrated her personality. I realized that my mother used to do the same thing. She was full of life and preferred green.

My roommate and I agreed we should fix our place up. I suggested royal blue walls, to give a secure and cool feeling to the place, purple curtains, and brown carpet. My roommate agreed. The freedom and ability to decorate my home how I like is comforting, and I hope it makes me feel peace.

But no matter how nice I make it, I worry that something will be missing. I think of home as a place you fill with a family. And the truth is that family, like home, is an abstract idea to me. I experienced favoritism in kinship and foster care, group homes, and shelters. Favoritism causes pain to the less fortunate and inflicts stress on top of already hard circumstances. I envision home as a peaceful place where you can go and not worry about greed or discrimination.

Given my experience, I now define family not necessarily as blood relatives but as people you can depend on who would not turn their backs on you. I hope I find those people; I have not met them yet.

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