This article is part of a quarterly series giving voice to the perspectives of individuals with lived experiences as they share their opinions on a particular topic. The authors of this column facilitated a focus group of their peers to inform this writing. The authors are served by Services for the UnderServed (S:US), a New York City-based nonprofit that is committed to giving every New Yorker the tools that they can use to lead a life of purpose.
We are all tenants of various supported housing residences run by Services for the UnderServed (S:US). Each of us has experienced mental illness, a substance use disorder, trauma, disability, or other challenges, including unstable housing. We came together one day to discuss how supported housing has saved our lives.
The residences we live in around New York City have different eligibility criteria: a diagnosis of mental illness and/or HIV/AIDS, a history of homelessness, a substance use disorder, etc. Our residences all have dedicated staff and support services that help us overcome our challenges. All of the quotes in this piece represent sentiments expressed directly by one of us.
Lack of Affordable Housing
Because of the high cost of housing in New York City, we all expressed in different ways our gratitude for the housing that S:US affords us.
One of us said, “I worked all my life. I lost it all when the financial crisis happened in 2008. I got laid off. It was such a traumatic experience after being such an independent woman. I left my lovely home before I got evicted. I spent all my financial resources living in hotels and also living with family members and friends. I knew I had to enter the system and I was traumatized, scared, heartbroken, and lost. Words can’t convey what I went through. I finally had a housing interview with S:US and was approved for an apartment. Today, I am living in my little nest in the Bronx. The Program Director and her kind staff are always approachable, with a smile, what a pleasure. I thank God every day for S:US. It’s a blessing to have affordable housing. I’m very proud of myself. My battle wasn’t easy, but I won that traumatic experience because God had my back.”
Housing Provides Safety, Security, and Stability
Having a roof over one’s head is more than protection from the elements. Housing is at the core of everything. A safe, secure home is the place we go to reflect, to unwind, and to feel grounded. Home is a foundation for growth and health, and a basic human need. One of us who has been an S:US tenant for several years has contributed to supporting her housing community as stated here.
“As President of the Consumer Advisory Board, one of my jobs is to advocate for the tenants. We help a lot of tenants in the building, making sure their voice is heard. I also go with them to appointments and court visits.”
Housing is an Essential First Step in Addressing Other Health Needs
Supported housing offers an opportunity to New Yorkers like us who need a little extra help to turn our lives around. Some of us had serious problems, like substance use challenges and histories of homelessness, that supported housing has helped us overcome.
One of us said, “This is my second apartment in two years. My plan was to get my act together and get off the street. I was in a shelter where there was lots of drug activity, prostitution, and fights. I couldn’t focus and make my life better. I got caught up in it. I became homeless for eight months. Now I have a single room and I’m glad I am living in S:US supported housing. I can now focus, make positive changes in my life, and I have privacy. Now where I’m at it’s more like living. I am looking forward to progress.”
Another one shared, “I came in with a serious problem. I spent five years on the streets without a stable home, sleeping in hallways and door frames, suffering third-degree burns, and continuing to battle addiction. But God had a different purpose for me. I finally decided to change my life. I’ve had strokes and pneumonia. I’m three years sober because I have support. I am grateful and appreciative. I’m thankful to be where I’m at today.”
Longevity and Commitment
One of us has only been in S:US housing for six months, but several of us have been here for many years. The person who has been here the longest has been living at an S:US residence for 19 years and is passionate about supported housing.
This is what this person shared: “I’ve never been in a shelter and I’m thankful for that. I first met S:US at the Brooklyn Clubhouse. My case manager referred me to the Clubhouse because I was in the process of being evicted. I lost my job and was going through health challenges. When I got my first apartment, I was fearful because I didn’t know how long I was going to have it. Now I come and go as I please. There were many adjustments to make. Before S:US I was suicidal for many years. I am now 72 years old and I am so happy to be alive.”
The support of staff in our residences is vital and building genuine trust with staff helps us make real progress in our recovery and health. When the staff we have grown to trust leave their jobs, it is difficult to adjust.
One of us explained, “I’ve been living here for about 17 years, and I’m thankful to S:US. But over the years there have been staff turnover, and this has been a real challenge.”
We Appreciate S:US Supported Housing
Many of us expressed appreciation for S:US staff and the physical beauty and uplifting atmosphere of our buildings. Some of us live in residences that include urban farming spaces run by S:US. These spaces not only beautify the grounds of the buildings but provide a therapeutic outlet for us through gardening and farming. Supportive, positive features like this add to our sense of comfort and safety.
One of us said, “I live in an environment where my self-esteem is lifted. I can’t help but improve my life because I am in a good place. I love my social workers, they work hard. I have a great view and am near a bus stop.”
Another remarked, “I’m grateful for the chance to live in supported housing. In Jamaica, where I’m from, this opportunity is not available.”
A third person shared, “I’ve been living here for 11 years. The social workers here allow me to think. I’ve been able to improve my life because of them.”
Our individual stories are diverse, but we found shared conclusions about the challenges, and ultimately, the value of supported housing in providing us a pathway toward stability.