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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Home Base
My apartment is a safe haven

There have been many highs and lows over the six years I’ve lived in my apartment in the projects in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Before I aged out of care, I applied for housing in Queens, Manhattan, and Brooklyn. This apartment was the first one they showed me, and I took it.

It is a one-bedroom apartment with a kitchenette. It’s on the 11th floor and I was excited that I could see the Empire State Building out the bedroom window. I felt independent, confident, and accomplished getting my own apartment.

When I first moved in, I was pleased that the area was safe. People didn’t bother me and I kept to myself. Because it’s a NYCHA (New York City Housing Authority, which is public housing) apartment, my rent was 30% of my income. When I moved in, my income came from part-time jobs at the Gap clothing store and at Wendy’s, plus selling Avon products on the side. My rent came to $83 a month.

I was working like a machine trying to pay bills, get my credit up, and save money. I was also going out and having fun, taking care of my two dogs, and rebuilding relationships with my family after years in foster care. I didn’t have the time or the money to fix my apartment up the way I wanted. I just bought a bed, a couch, a table and chairs, some dressers, and a nightstand with a furniture grant I got from the city.

Then I lost my job at the Gap. I worked part-time at Avon and at a tax preparation service, but I fell behind on my rent and my payments to Avon. So NYCHA tried to evict me. Thank goodness that public assistance paid my rent. It made me grateful for my apartment and New York’s safety net: Without the city’s help, I probably would have become homeless.

That year, I went back to school and over the course of three semesters, brought my GPA up to 3.2. I was happy and proud of myself for staying focused on school. I got a job cleaning an office and another one doing work-study at my school.

Hard to Share Space

Then my older brother asked if he could move in with me. I had a bad feeling about it, but I let him in because I felt sorry for him. He’d been a victim of identity theft when he was in the military. He got stuck with debt that wasn’t his fault, and he was working at UPS and paying it off. He was also trying to save up for a security deposit for his own apartment.

It wasn’t bad in the beginning because we gave each other space. He slept on the couch and he kept his stuff in the closet. He paid rent every two weeks. He cleaned up after himself and put food in the fridge.

But then we started arguing—about the friends I had over, about the way I spent my money. I didn’t like his judgments, and he wasn’t looking for another apartment. He damaged my couch and didn’t pay for it. Finally, I kicked him out. I learned that when someone stays in my home, we should both know when they are going to leave.

But I have a big heart, and right after my brother left, I let my pregnant friend and her two kids move in with me. She stayed for three months and three weeks. I got tired of her and her fiance, who would come over sometimes, arguing into the night. My neighbors complained about the noise: It was embarrassing. I felt sorry for her, but she too took advantage of me, and I had to kick her out.

That was worse than with my brother. She left after saying “our friendship is dead,” and then tried to get me in trouble for letting someone move into an apartment that was only supposed to be for me! Since my name was on the lease with NYCHA, I was allowed to have company but I was supposed to be the only one living in my apartment.

The next year, I let my younger brother move in because I didn’t want him in the streets. He told me that he was trying to get a job and get an apartment. Our relationship has never been as close as mine and my older brother’s, and I didn’t think he was doing all he could to get a job and his own place.

Money Stress

That same year I dropped out of school. I was stressed and depressed. Public assistance kept opening and closing my case because of a Work and Employment Program assignment I didn’t go to. I didn’t go because I’d been hired for a temporary job, but the lady at the Fair Hearing department didn’t put in her system that I found a job. That opening and closing of my case led NYCHA to try to evict me again.

Money stress contributed, I think, to my having a nervous breakdown two years ago. Things boiled over that summer, and I started breaking things in fits of anger. One night when I was out of control, breaking things and yelling, a neighbor called the cops and they took me to a psychiatric hospital for a 33-day stay.

Living in the hospital felt like I was in jail or a homeless shelter. I couldn’t wear jewelry or shoelaces. I couldn’t leave and people could only come during visiting hours. I wanted to be home, not confined with five other women. I missed my freedom and my space.

image by YC-Art Dept

When I finally came home, my apartment looked barren, not like a home. My brother had cleaned up from my fight with the arresting officers, but the place seemed empty and sad. Even clean, it brought back memories of the nervous breakdown. My passport and one of my chairs were gone. Worst of all, someone had taken away my two beloved dogs, and I couldn’t find out where they’d gone. I felt displaced and was trying to cope with loss.

I felt like I was cooped up in a dungeon, but I was also scared to go outside. These intense reactions were partly due to my mental illness and partly due to the strong medication they’d put me on in the hospital.

I also returned to the same problems with my younger brother, only worse. He acted like my home was his. He brought women into my house without my permission. I felt that he took advantage of my overmedicated state. He stopped paying rent, he was using my stuff, and he made false promises about getting a job and an apartment.

We got into a heated argument six months after I got home from the hospital, and he said my apartment was “a piece of sh-t.” Those words crushed me to the bone because I’d worked hard to get that apartment. I’d applied for a NYCHA apartment four times before they approved me (at first, my application was declared “dead” when I didn’t have a job with pay stubs). I didn’t have anyone holding my hand, no family or friends.

He didn’t understand how much effort I put into getting and keeping my apartment. We eventually apologized to each other and both decided that by the end of this year, he has to go. Four out of six years in my place, I’ve carried other people’s problems and been uncomfortable in my own home.

Home Care Is Self-Care

Ironically, the fight with my brother showed me how important my place was to me. It led me to put more time and energy into decorating my apartment. I started making lists of what I wanted for my house: pictures and to display the autographs and photos I’ve taken with celebrities. I also wanted to get plants.

Over this past year, I have fixed up my apartment and it’s helped my self-esteem. I painted the walls an off white, and hung up pictures and autographs. I bought bamboo plants and roses. I bought a TV and chairs for the living room and rearranged things to make more space.

I knew I was happier with a dog, so I got Jewel, a Yorkie, from my cousin. She has been such a friend to me. She’s therapy for me when I feel down and alone.

The only things I still need are a couch and internet, which I’m going to get once I save up more money. I’m trying to build my credit back up.

I was introduced to City Living, a program that helps people who have aged out of foster care have a fresh start with neccessities such as housewares and furniture. They’ve helped by giving me dishes and appliances. They also helped motivate me to get my life together and helped me feel better about myself.

Having a home that feels like a home makes me more motivated and more confident. I’m currently working on handling my anger. I forgave my little brother and we made up. I’m working on getting peace of mind in my apartment. I light prayer candles to relax and calm my nerves. I’m writing poetry. I’m trying to go back to school next year. I’m looking for full-time work and odd jobs.

I also met a guy who accepts me for me and respects me. I’m taking things slow and learning to be more patient. I recently let him come to my house for the first time; we’re still on a friend level, not dating yet.

It feels good having company, but it’s also nice being home with Jewel. It feels peaceful to have a cup of wine and watch TV. Fixing up my house and making it a nice place to be feels like working on myself. My apartment now reflects the things I have done for myself in the last six years.

Use This Story With Foster Youth Aging Out

Many youth believe that once they get a subsidized apartment, they’ll be set. Use this story with young adults to prepare them for the challenges of living alone:

• Budgeting: Even if the rent is low, you must maintain an income to pay it.

• Relatives and roommates: Work out money, space, and interpersonal issues before
moving in together.

• Furnishing, decorating, and state of mind: Make your home a place where you feel safe and peaceful.

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