Redefining homelessness

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I hear students often proclaim that they are broke, as I see them pull out their parent’s debit card to pay for all they need. It feels as though these individuals are romanticizing the notion of the “broke college life” to fit in with their peers. Not only is it problematic in and of itself, but it silences those truly experiencing housing insecurity, poverty and homelessness.

Some of us don’t have financially supportive parents; some of us don’t have supportive parents, period.

I was raised by a single mother who struggled constantly to make ends meet. In high school, when I was forced to live with my father, the environment was so toxic and abusive it impacted every facet of my life. My father’s drug addiction had relapsed, and sometimes he had to steal my money to pay for it. My daily environment was rampant with psychological and emotional abuse. I never felt safe.

I remember when I tried telling my family about someone who stalked and harassed me for eight months. They simply told me, “You’re playing the victim.” When I finally told them that he had raped me, rather than trying to help, they yelled and blamed me for it. When I started questioning the abuse, my father told me, “You have a big mouth, and one day, a man is going to hit you for it.”

This environment forced me to be homeless. Throughout my sophomore and junior year of high school, I was forced to intermittently sleep on my friends’ couches, at my relatives’ places, at my partner’s home — anywhere except my father’s home. I never knew if it would be the day when my family would violently lash out at me. When I did leave, my family would track my phone, accuse me of drug use, yell at me and demand that I come home.

I hid my experiences from my classmates, my teachers and even myself. I learned to hide it, buy nice clothes at thrift shops, silence myself and never talk about it to others. I had so many absences, and many of my teachers mistook me for a “bad kid” when I was simply struggling to survive. Yet, somehow I managed to graduate with honors.

In April 2017, I was finally accepted as a spring transfer admit to my dream school, UC Berkeley. In the period between being accepted to UC Berkeley and moving to Berkeley, I found myself forced into a similar situation: I had maxed out my financial aid eligibility, I was working two jobs, and the money I was making was laughable.

I was forced to live on a couch for eight months. On top of not having a sense of personhood or privacy, I was psychologically abused again. I was consistently blamed for every mess in the house. I felt as if I was literally a dog. I would spend as many nights at my partner’s place as possible, even hiding my living situation from them.

Now that I am finally here, I feel disconnected from the campus culture. I felt less than prepared by my Golden Bear Orientation in understanding how to navigate Berkeley’s housing and academics. Despite the fact that Berkeley ranks as the most expensive college town in the United States, not a single meeting, workshop, or speech discussed how to find housing in this case. Especially for someone like me — a first-generation college student — information like this is pertinent to finding, affording and securing housing.

I am more than grateful to be here and receive financial aid. I wouldn’t be able to study at UC Berkeley without the support from the university and the government. Despite this, I still feel the worsening housing crisis and the proposed tuition hikes encroaching.

While our school’s administration has countered the criticism of tuition hikes with statements that those who receive financial aid won’t be impacted, what happens to those who are in need of aid and are unable to receive it? Even for those who receive aid, these statements fail to address the lack of affordable housing in Berkeley.

I in no way intend to overlook experiences of homelessness that force individuals into shelters, on the streets or in their cars. My point is that homelessness takes many forms and encompasses many students’ experiences. Too often the accumulation and impact of these experiences is overlooked and silenced by a system of competitive academic rigor.

As students in a progressive institution of higher education, we need to address the multifaceted aspects of homelessness and housing insecurity. It’s on ourselves, our university and our elected representatives to create solutions from an intersectional lens to combat the complexity of homelessness and housing insecurity at UC Berkeley.

Contact Kaitlyn Hodge at [email protected].