In Search of Security — When finding housing is a job in itself

Piazadora and her son

Six years ago I went into the New York City shelter system. For 11 months, I searched for apartments like crazy. I had few options. I had just come out of a psychiatric hospital. I had a 4-year- old son and was pregnant with my daughter. I had a housing voucher and was living off of supplemental security income and food stamps. I went in and out of real estate offices until I found an apartment at the western edge of the Bronx, in the River Park Towers.

The area was bad and flooded with drugs. I wanted to give my children better than what I had growing up, but I was down to my last straw. I had no choice.

I tried to make the best of our one bedroom by putting up curtains that matched my living room set and buying cable TV. But the apartment began to fall apart soon after we moved in. The toilet stopped up, the elevator didn’t work, and the landlord didn’t make repairs. On winter nights, we would freeze because the windows let in cold air. We would put on hats and gloves, with long johns under our pajamas.

Even so, I felt that I was making progress in my life. My mother was a drug addict who didn’t take care of me. One of my grandmothers raised me with extreme physical and emotional abuse, always saying things like, “You ain’t never going to be nothing, just like your mother.” I felt as if my fate had already been painted, and in fact, I did become an addict and lost my son to foster care, but I got treatment and got him home. I also enrolled in college and finished two semesters. My plan was to get my children settled, finish school, get a job and support myself. Then came nearly 18 months when my life was overtaken by running here and there to try to hold on to our housing. All my plans for moving my life forward fell apart.

It began with a letter saying that the NewYork City voucher program that helped pay my rent was being discontinued. Neither the Department of Homeless services nor the city help line offered any information that helped me. A few months later, I got a letter from my landlord’s lawyer telling me that, because the voucher had ended, I was in danger of being evicted. At the rental office, I was told to get public assistance. For that, I needed a letter from my son’s school, which I had to request and pick up in person; a letter from supplemental security income and a letter from my rental office. I spent five hours applying at the Human resources administration office. Then I went to another unit for emergency rent assistance. I needed proof of an active public assistance case; a letter from a judge stating the exact amount of rent owed; and a letter saying my landlord would lower my rent. That took weeks.

When I went to turn in those documents, the worker told me that my center had been changed to Center No. 17. She told me it was in Brooklyn, two hours each way from my house by train and bus. I could not find someone to pick up my son from the school bus if my appointment went long. In the end, I just kept him home from school and took him with me. When we got to Center No. 17, the worker asked me, “Why did you travel all the way to Brooklyn when there is a Center No. 17 in the Bronx?” Luckily she agreed to help me. I must have thanked her 10 times.

Going from appointment to appointment, I felt defeated and depressed. For weeks I had done nothing but gather paperwork. I could barely go to my part-time job, and I had to drop out of school. My life already felt as if I were riding in a small boat with just one oar, always patching up the holes. now my boat was leaking. I said to myself every day, “How am I going to keep us from drowning?” After several months, I was able to qualify for a new housing voucher and stay in my apartment.

Just a short time later, though, my landlord sold the building. We would have to move. The good news was that people with low income were given Section-8 vouchers (the federal government’s housing assistance). This change terrified me (I had 60 days to find an apartment) but I was also hopeful. Section-8 is a long-term affordable housing program.

I yelled and cried a lot during my apartment search. Everyone wanted three months’ rent and a broker’s fee. If I had almost $6,000 in savings, I probably wouldn’t need a voucher. Finally, I spoke with a landlord in Yonkers who had an apartment for $1,800 with only one month’s security. When I arrived, I saw a guy sweeping the front steps. I thought, “This is going to be a well-kept building.” Then I stepped into the apartment and was overwhelmed with happiness and unworthiness. It was huge and beautiful, with three spacious bedrooms. I wanted to cry.

It has been so different to live in a nice area without violence, drug use and dealers in the park. My children and I have met our neighbors. I’m not scared to let my children (my son is 10 now, and my daughter, 6) play outside. We even have cookouts in our yard.

Before, I had to keep my guard up. I felt as if I had to become a monster to protect my children from harm. Although nothing is perfect, finding stable housing in a nice area is our little peace of mind and paradise.

I don’t think I’ll be dependent on rental assistance, public assistance and supplemental security income forever. Having order in my life is making it possible to have direction again. I am back at work and achieving my goal of slowly and strongly moving forward at my job. Now my children and I have little bonus adventures. One evening in July I took them to the Yonkers boardwalk to sit on a blanket and have an icee, something I never would have felt free enough to do a year ago.

My family life is not problem-free, but it is stable and happy. I think my children are learning that we can keep looking for ways to save our lives, and we won’t always struggle.