By Holly Lyon
On top of struggling with poverty, finding a job, maintaining a shelter, Collen is struggling with bureaucratic nightmare of becoming a U.S. citizen. Collen lives in a downtown shelter in Cleveland, and has become active with a number of advocacy efforts locally. I pick her up and as she settles in, I ask her how she has been. Although she presents a calm demeanor, it is obvious Collen is worried. She explains that she is trying to obtain a social security number, which will enable her to gain citizenship. Obtaining permission to become a US citizen is her biggest obstacle now, as it is preventing her from securing a job and housing for her family.
I ask how her children are. She tells me that they are well, but that she has her son in counseling to adjust to their current living situation. Her son, thirteen, lives in a residential school setting. Collen also has a daughter in college, she then is homeless when her school is on break. They have all struggled with friends to maintain housing and keep the family together.
Housing is critical for Collen’s family. Collen is not native to the United States, although she has been in the States for over twenty years, renewing her visa but never becoming a citizen. Now she is facing the reality of having to return to her native country of Trinidad to apply for American citizenship. This may result in indefinitely separating her from her children, both of whom were born in the United States.
Although her children are not currently living with her that has not always been the case. In fact, the majority of her children’s childhood was spent living together as a family with the assistance of public housing. She talks about the neighborhood where she lived in New York City having a lot of drug traffic, and how it was important to create a safe environment within their apartment and building. She explains how she took them to the library and organized picnics with other families who lived in the building.
As she talks about her children, I comment to her that she has done a lot to make sure her children are educated and well taken care of. She tells me in a candid but humble tone, “I could not give them everything they needed.” She explains that it was many people and organizations in the community that assisted her.
It is not surprising that Collen talks at length about navigating the social service system, as it consumes much of her time. She commented, “You only get half of what you need.” She explains she wants to get back into housing, but is worried that stimulus funding, called Homeless Prevention and Rapid Rehousing funds, only supplies economic support for a short period of time and that once that assistance ends, the income that she receives will not allow her to sustain a household.
She is worried, Collen explains. She has not worked a steady job for 20 years. When she first came to the States, she lived in New York City and worked as a messenger. When she became pregnant with her daughter, her self-sufficiency was compromised. Her boyfriend and the father of her daughter had a heart attack close to the birth of their child. Initially she retained her job as a messenger, but left due to her daughter needing to be taken out of daycare. An eviction followed.
She briefly described living in a home with a family member; the home had no electricity or running water. Shortly after this experience she entered a shelter. She comments that “there are people in the United States that live like those in third world countries.” She speaks with both gratitude and vexations about her experiences with social service providers. She mentions the disparity in the quality of education, living wage and a social service system that sustains people at a level of poverty and leaves people both the client and the social services provider “totally frustrated”.
The last thing I ask Collen is what she wants for her future. She says she wants to work, but she also wants to go to go to college, so she can get a job to support her family. Lastly, she discusses wanting to stay active in the community, beyond her homelessness. Although she recognizes, she may have to leave the States, she continues to work towards self sufficiency, an education and citizenship.
Copyright Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and The Street Chronicle published Sept. 2011 Cleveland, Ohio