Housing Stability Changed My Life

Living in a shelter depressed and isolated me; housing and caring relationships improved everything.

by Rose Perna

Pedro Costa Simeao

My mom, my six siblings, and I moved into a homeless shelter in Brooklyn in February 2021. It was a shelter for families with children, and the apartment they put us in was horrible. The walls had graffiti and mold on them, the floors looked like they’d never been cleaned, and you could hear rats scratching and squeaking inside the walls. 

I was 12 years old and had already lived in many houses, apartments, and trailers in Georgia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, upstate New York, Texas, and New Jersey. The seven of us had been living in an RV, which caught on fire, and we were forced to seek shelter in New York City. The COVID-19 pandemic was raging when we moved in, which meant my mother probably wouldn’t be able to get a job. 

The three youngest kids slept with my mother, and the oldest got our own rooms, which was new for us. It might sound better to have an apartment with my own room than to live in a trailer, but the RV was actually fun. We adopted cats, and it felt like a traveling farm.

For the first couple of days in Brooklyn, we were silent. We all were shocked and disappointed with where we were living, and we withdrew from each other. The beds were uncomfortable and the blankets were thin. Every day I woke up with a sore back and wondered, “Is this going to be my life now?” 

Over the years, I’d seen my mom get and lose jobs. She took up with some men who were abusive, and Child Protective Services (CPS) had entered our lives before. Overall, I believed that my mom would find her way, but when we ended up in the shelter I started to worry that she might not be able to take care of us after all. I realized I’d been worried about our finances for a lot of my childhood. 

I started school in the middle of 8th grade, commuting by subway from the shelter. I was bullied and I fell into a bad crowd. I stayed out late, and got high, wanting to be away from the shelter and my mom’s unhappiness. She seemed overwhelmed and I couldn’t talk to her about what I was going through. 

We were still in the shelter when I started high school in fall of 2022. We still didn’t have the money to replace the clothes we’d lost in the fire, so I wore my mother’s too-big clothes to school. I didn’t always get to take a shower because the hot water was off most of the time. I was bullied for smelling bad and wearing my mom’s clothes, and for being new to New York City. 

I went to school with my head down so nobody would notice me. But even when I tried my best to be enclosed, the bullies tormented me, calling me, “disgusting,” “garbage,” “homeless,” “pale,” and “skinny.”

Then I would come home to an empty fridge, and no one to talk to about what was going on at school. My siblings were in their rooms with their doors locked. I went into survival mode, doing my best not to feel anything, because everything I felt was bad and hopeless.

One day in class, the teacher sent me to the counselor’s office. I assumed I was in trouble, and I left the class in misery with the bullies staring and whispering.

In the office, I saw a woman whose eyes looked sad and kind. I sensed comfort in the room, and she introduced herself as my school counselor.

“Rose, I don’t know you very well, but you have been missing a lot of school and your grades are low. I can tell that there’s something going on. Do you want to talk about it?” the counselor said. She asked good questions and listened with sympathy. 

I was not used to crying in front of people, but the tears streamed when I told her about the bullying, and that I wasn’t getting enough to eat because it took a while for us to get food stamps. I told her my mom was stressed out and put a higher priority on the younger kids than on me. I told her that without friends to lean on (the bad crowd I saw once in a while weren’t real friends) and a stable mother, I had no motivation to care about school. Even as I felt relief at letting my sadness out, I made sure not to tell her anything that would lead her to call CPS on my family.

She said I could come see her whenever I needed to talk. I thought, “Why aren’t you my mom?” I said, “I’ll be fine, thank you.”   

I was put on a waitlist to transfer to a different school. After I left, I regretted crying with someone who didn’t even know what it felt to be me. I wasn’t used to being vulnerable, and it felt bad, like I’d been a burden. I didn’t feel like I deserved to be happy, so I’d just go back to being alone in my room—a room I didn’t even like. 

I never went back to see the counselor again, but looking back, I think I started to heal that day. Telling her all those things that I couldn’t tell my mother made me think, “I’m supposed to be a teenager and care about my grades and have enough to eat.” This gave me some freedom from my mom and let me imagine making my own life better.  

Housing Makes Everything Better

Then, in the summer between 9th and 10th grade, the front desk manager knocked on the door to tell my family that we were finally off the waiting list for public housing. “What borough do you want to live in?” she asked. My mom asked for Manhattan, and it took a month for our NYCHA (public housing) apartment in Harlem to be ready. 

I was happily stunned when I walked in. The apartment is on the fifth floor, with big windows, which we could open and shut, looking over the city. It has wood floors, not concrete. The walls were painted a beautiful, clean white. 

It felt like a home. 

It seemed like all of us had shut down our emotions and separated from each other in order not to acknowledge how bad life in the shelter was. In the apartment, we gathered like a family again, watching movies together on the couch like we used to. That Christmas, we got a tree for the first time in several years and opened presents together.  

Along with the apartment, my family received enough money to buy beds, a couch and other furniture, and new clothes. Having decent clothes and a reliable shower helped to end the bullying in my 10th grade year.

I started to realize how bad life in the shelter had been. With some distance and perspective, I thought, “I can’t believe I had to go through that so young,” instead of “It’s just another day.” I was finally able to see how depressed and isolated I had gotten. I had pushed away both my own feelings and the people who tried to help me. 

When I lived in the shelter, I hated going to school. I was so miserable, I didn’t see a future, and I couldn’t see school as a way to succeed and get independent. 

In the fall of 10th grade, my grades went up, and I started to make friends. 

I felt like a new person in his presence, a person who deserved to see color, who deserved to be happy. 

I also met Sebastian. He is tall, with a smile I love admiring. We are in the same grade but go to different schools, and we met online. The first time we were together in person he bought me a slice of pizza, which sounds small but meant so much. Nobody—adult or teenager—had ever given me food without asking,  “Can you buy it yourself?” I ate the slice with a smile on my face and a warm heart, and he quickly became my ride or die. 

Before Sebastian, all I knew of New York City was how to get to school and home again. But he opened up a new world for me. I would ask him, “What is that building?” and he told me. He never asked me “Why don’t you know this? Are you dumb?” I felt like a new person in his presence, a person who deserved to see color, who deserved to be happy. 

Sebastian answered any question I had, including, “What are your parents like?” He didn’t judge me, even when he found out how many siblings I had, and no dad. He texted me a lot just to find out how I was doing.

More to Life Than the Bad Parts

Four months after we met, Sebastian and I sat together on a bench looking out into the harbor. 

“Rose, what’s wrong?” he asked. He could read my moods. 

I told him that I had lived in a shelter for a year and a half, that I used to cut school and do drugs with a bad group of friends. (Sebastian takes care of his body and hates drugs.) Then I said, “I didn’t believe in happiness until I met you.” 

As I spoke, it felt like everything stopped and I was floating. I began to cry, thinking, “He’s gonna leave now.” 

Instead, he looked at me and said, “I am here to listen.” 

I told him the whole sad story of my life. He held my hand, and we watched the water in the harbor move up and down as I talked. It hit me how much I’d been holding in and I began sobbing into his jacket. 

“It’s OK to cry Rose, you’re a human being with human emotions. You didn’t deserve any of that. Rose, you’re gonna be OK.”

Knowing that there are people in this world that choose to care, and choose to understand me, makes me feel less burdened and more able to express my feelings. Besides Sebastian, I made friends who I can talk about things with. 

My older brother has started coming into my room and we both discuss our lives. In the shelter he never came out of his room at all, so it was a huge step. It’s good to be there for each other. 

Being seen by Sebastian and my friends and my brother made me realize that there is so much more to life than the bad parts. I no longer isolate myself when something sad happens. I talk to someone about it or tell myself that I can heal from sad things. In the shelter, I didn’t see the possibility of anything ever changing. 

When I was in the shelter, I never recognized my mental health as something important. Crying was never an option; it was always “Get up, your feelings are useless. Crying won’t help you get out of this shelter.” 

Now, I tell myself that it’s OK to cry. And that means I get to be happy, too. Feeling all my feelings is a huge step in my healing process, and the healing started with talking to my counselor and then getting out of the shelter.

Having a stable place to live has granted me the space to feel and express myself, and also allowed me some independence from my mom. I know I can stay in the same school through graduation. And in a year and a half, I can go to college and be in charge of my own fate.

Rose is a junior at Union Square Academy for Health Sciences.

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