'They Were Rooting For Us, And We Won.' Overcoming Abuse And Homelessness

Alyssa Fernandez and her daughter have overcome homelessness.
Alyssa Fernandez and her daughter have overcome homelessness.
“Homelessness is the least interesting thing about [homeless youth]. They are artists and athletes, students and staff, rappers and writers, comedians and co-workers. They're our sons and daughters, brimming with hope. Homeless is where they are. Not who they are.” -Kevin Ryan

Below is one story that shows the strength, resilience and desire to succeed despite the many unfair barriers placed in the way of homeless youth. I am proud to know Alyssa Fernandez, a formally homeless young person. This is the unforgettable story of her and her young family, as told by her:

Alyssa: Four years ago I was panhandling outside New York City’s Columbus Circle, right next to the Trump International Hotel. The people who passed me rarely acknowledged me. I felt disposable. In fact, many of them would look at me with disgust and say, “Go back to where you are from. Don’t you have a family member you can stay with?”

The truth is, my step-dad changed the locks. He always made his dominance clear: “This house is not a democracy, it’s a dictatorship," he often shouted. Growing up in that house, I got stitches and bruises, as did others in my family. Taking drugs was the only way I felt that could cope with the abuse I experienced and witnessed in the house that should have been a safe haven. By age 14, I was in rehab for addiction.

Alyssa Fernandez looks out the window. Today she is an inspiration to many of the other homeless youth at Safe Horizon’s Stre
Alyssa Fernandez looks out the window. Today she is an inspiration to many of the other homeless youth at Safe Horizon’s Streetwork Project.

My house felt like a prison, and on my 18th birthday, I finally escaped. Since then, I’ve learned that domestic violence is one of the leading causes of homelessness nationwide. In NYC, 34% of homeless youth report that fleeing mental, physical or sexual abuse was the primary reason for their homelessness.

The other homeless teens I met when I came to New York were also running away from something worse than sleeping on the street. I wish I could say it got easier after meeting others like me, but it didn’t. The homeless system for youth is deeply flawed and many of my friends have fallen through the cracks; some have even died.

In order to make a better future for ourselves, young people need a safe and stable place to lay our heads at night. Currently, the maximum stay in New York City crisis shelter for homeless youth under 21 is just 30 days. Additionally, when you turn 21 you can no longer access these beds—even if your only other viable alternative is the street. For homeless youth, their 21st birthday is no celebration.

Your birthday gift is a “get the hell out of here” card. It's not that the dedicated staff at youth shelters want to put us out, but current city and state regulations give them no other choice. Youth shelter staff work tirelessly to help young people find housing so they have a place to go when the 30 days are up. Even then, so many of us have no choice but to return to life on the streets of the concrete jungle.

In 2016, less than one percent of homeless youth leaving youth crisis shelter moved into their own apartments. This system is not working. Members of the New York City Council have introduced bills to increase the age of eligibility for crisis shelter to 25 years old and increase the length of stay to at least 90 days. The full City Council needs to vote on these important measures as soon as possible, and the city and state should fund additional shelters so that young people like me aren’t sleeping on sidewalks.

It’s easy to think that young people should just go to adult homeless shelters, but it’s often worse than the alternative. Most 21-year-old homeless youth would rather sleep on the street in freezing weather--or trade sex for a place to stay--than go into an adult homeless shelter.

Alyssa was homeless for four years before she found stable housing.
Alyssa was homeless for four years before she found stable housing.

When my husband turned 21, he refused to go to one of these shelters. The two times he had stayed at one while on the waiting list for a bed in a youth shelter, he was robbed. Would you return to place where you were robbed twice? I know a lot of homeless youth who refuse to go into adult shelter because of the violence and theft that so often occurs.

When you compare this scenario to youth shelters—it’s night and day. I remember when I learned about Safe Horizon and their Streetwork Project, a program for homeless youth. A case manager told me that Streetwork has a crisis youth homeless shelter, and someone was praying for me that day because there was one bed open starting that night. I rushed over to the shelter. I was so nervous, because I was accustomed to being treated as a 2nd class citizen. But as soon as I walked in, I felt like I mattered. The case manager there asked me, “What’s your goal?” It’s a standard question she had probably asked thousands of times, but it really had an impact for me.

I whispered, “…to be happy.”

In that moment, I realized that I never knew what it felt like to be happy. I was not really living but existing, surviving, in a way that made it nearly impossible to enjoy anything in the moment.

Alyssa plays the drums with her husband and oldest child.
Alyssa plays the drums with her husband and oldest child.

Today I have stable housing, two beautiful children, and my loving husband. It has been a long process to get to this point, and the staff at Streetwork were my advocates when I was too exhausted or overwhelmed to advocate for myself. They were constantly rooting for my family and I, and we won.

But for four years I moved from shelter to shelter, slept in abandoned buildings that Hurricane Sandy destroyed, and dodged bullets in a city-sponsored apartment in Queens with my then 7-month-old daughter.

Finding housing takes more than 30 days, and getting kicked out of a youth shelter on your 21st birthday does not in any way accelerate the process. It takes time to become stable, and it’s much more complicated than “Save up, move out.”

It takes at least a year to be approved for supportive housing. Once you're deemed eligible, you spend 6-12 months finding an open apartment, then another 2-3 months to get an interview. After an interview, you could wait 2-3 months just to get a rejection letter.

Believe it or not, I had more advantages than many of my peers. I'm perceived to be white, I’m well-spoken and "well-behaved," and I have two children whose existence increased my housing options dramatically. All of these things gave me an advantage, in different ways. My husband is a man of color and has struggled with mental health issues as a direct result of his homelessness.

Part of me wonders where he would be today if he didn't have me and our kids. Would he be sleeping on the street tonight, or worse?

*Alyssa Fernandez is a formerly homeless youth. She is a member of Safe Horizon's Streetwork Project and Speakers Bureau.

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