Housing Insecurity Is A War — Trauma & All

·11 min read

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I was 29 years old the first time I visited a therapist. After experiencing an unprompted panic attack at work, I was referred to them by my job’s Employee Assistance Program. It had been a year since I left my apartment in Brooklyn, where I was born and raised, to live with my partner, his parents, and our new baby in Long Island, a largely suburban area east of the city.

My partner’s family lived what could be considered the American Dream: a two-story house complete with a basement and a sprawling backyard. Still, here I was, venting to the therapist about how miserable I was, even if it was the first time I felt like I had a chance at establishing a permanent home for my new family. “This panic attack would have never happened if I never left Brooklyn,” I said in between sobs. “Have you ever heard of PTSD,” my therapist asked me, checking his watch to ensure we were not over time. “You mean what happens to someone after they’ve been through a war?” My mind began to connect this idea of surviving a war to my personal experiences surviving housing insecurity. “Exactly,” my therapist replied. I left this visit with new information about the trauma that people who have experienced housing insecurity face and how displacement is its own kind of war zone.

But even after this visit, I didn’t fully understand just how dealing with housing insecurity my whole life had affected my mental health. It hit me while I was in the middle of writing my debut novel, “When We Make It,” trying to describe my protagonist’s childhood home in Bushwick, Brooklyn. While the novel was based on my own experiences, I realized I had no recollection of my mother preparing meals in the kitchen. I couldn’t remember what color my bedroom walls were. There were no memories of family members eternally frozen inside of mismatched frames hanging on a living room wall. I couldn’t even tell you the structural elements of the building.

“Displacement is its own kind of war zone.”

Elisabet Velasquez

It is common for someone who has experienced trauma to have trouble remembering events, times, or people. When I called my mother for answers, she hesitated. The silence stretched between us before she confirmed we had been homeless. Before I could ask her more questions, she moved on. She experiences visual and auditory hallucinations, and for months she had been talking about “Los Americanos” stealing her social security checks in an effort to make default on her rent so she can move. 

Though spotty, my memories of a permanent apartment begin in the third grade, but that didn’t last long. I got pregnant when I was 16, and my mother kicked me out when my daughter was four months old because she believed we were possessed by evil spirits. My daughter was welcomed by her paternal grandparents, but I was told there was no space for me. I would have to figure out where I was going to sleep. I spent the next 10 years navigating housing insecurity, government-subsidized housing, and sometimes I stayed in unhealthy relationships simply to have a roof over my head. This move to Long Island was no different. With rents in gentrifying Brooklyn rapidly increasing along with my anxiety, I thought it would be a good idea to save money and maybe be able to afford a home of our own to finally break the traumatic cycle of my past.

But trauma cycles can only be interrupted if you understand what factors contribute to keeping them in place. I began to wonder about the connections between displacement and mental health and how deep they go.

Like many Puerto Ricans, my mother and her parents migrated to New York City from Puerto Rico under the promise that they’d have better economic opportunities in the contiguous U.S. than they ever could on the archipelago. My mother, her family, and thousands of other Puerto Ricans settled in Bushwick in the 1960s alongside Black Americans who migrated from the South. We became neighbors at a time when real estate was fueled by racism.

These racist housing ideologies were so deeply entrenched into the American way of living that they were referenced in pop culture. In a 1973 episode of “All In The Family,” Archie Bunker creates a petition in an attempt to prevent Puerto Ricans from buying the house next door so that the property value of his house would not go down. When asked by his son-in-law, Michael, what the difference was between the new neighbors moving in and the Jeffersons, a Black family that was already living next door, Archie responds, “Because one colored family is a novelty and two is a ghetto.”

In Bushwick, this manifested as a largely Italian and German population succumbing to blockbusting, selling their homes to real estate agents below the market rate because they feared that the influx of Black American and Puerto Rican residents would diminish the value of their property. It also led to redlining, another racist housing practice in which mortgage lenders refuse to give out loans solely based on the number of non-white residents in a neighborhood.

“Some argue that the gentrification many Black and Latine neighborhoods are experiencing throughout the country is a byproduct of these early discriminatory housing practices.”

Elisabet Velasquez

These discriminatory housing practices left many already economically disenfranchised non-white residents unable to afford rent or mortgage on properties that were sold to them at steep prices. Some landlords were even charged with arson, burning down their properties in an effort to recoup by cashing in on insurance policies. Many other properties in Bushwick were foreclosed on and abandoned, leaving many people homeless. Some argue that the gentrification many Black and Latine neighborhoods are experiencing throughout the country is a byproduct of these early discriminatory housing practices.

Shortly after I was born in 1983, my mother and I became homeless because of these racist policies. After a split from my father, she spent the initial years of my childhood sleeping on park benches, in churches, and renting rooms wherever she could. Without steady employment and with limited housing options, my mother would remain homeless until 1987 when she was offered a room in an apartment of a stranger she met on the street who had been squatting in a foreclosed city-owned tenement building.

My first memories of home begin here: a three-bedroom railroad apartment full of crates with rusty tools and dozens of broken fans, radios, and VCRS. An infestation of rats and roaches shared everything with us except the rent. Our feet would often go through gaping holes in the unfinished wooden floor. A non-working bathroom meant we used buckets when we needed to go, and the smell of urine and feces permeated through the walls. Eventually, the man we shared the apartment with passed away and my mother took over as the main squatter.

Although Bushwick and its buildings were in a state of disrepair, my mother and many other families managed to build lives amid the rubble. While everything seemed to be deteriorating, we were determined to flourish. Black and Latine people created families, shared culture, and found hope in a place everyone dubbed hopeless.

But that was taken away from us, too. By the time the ‘90s rolled around, Bushwick was known as one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in New York due to its crime and drug statistics, which was created in part by the lack of resources and economic alternatives offered to us. Still, any political discussion of Bushwick’s deterioration ignored the neighborhood’s long history with systemic neglect. The city’s failures were instead blamed solely on the Black and Latine residents who lived there. Reeling from the 1989 murder of Maria Hernandez, a local activist who advocated for safer streets, New York City politicians announced an actual war: the War on Drugs.

Although redlining and blockbusting were declared illegal practices under the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the War on Drugs had a significant effect on housing policies as well. In his 1996 State Of The Union Address, President Bill Clinton used the War on Drugs to call for the “One Strike and You’re Out” initiative. This measure challenged local housing authorities and tenant associations to enact stronger eviction policies for those who were suspected of drug activity. With these policies in place, Bushwick began undergoing a housing and economic revival, with politicians promising to rebuild the neglected neighborhood in exchange for votes. 

“While everything seemed to be deteriorating, we were determined to flourish. Black and Latine people created families, shared culture, and found hope in a place everyone dubbed hopeless.”

Elisabet Velasquez

Since policies often blamed the residents of Bushwick for its dilapidated condition, the solutions established relied on their removal. Investors seized the opportunity to capitalize on the city’s renewed interests in the neighborhood and, since then, an influx of people taking advantage of a lower-cost alternative to living in Manhattan flooded Bushwick. This created yet another wave of displacement and housing discrimination as landlords preferred to rent to new white residents willing to pay more than what non-white residents like my mother, who relied on newly obtained federal housing subsidies, could afford.

I know the long-lasting effects that housing discrimination practices have had on the mental health of communities of color firsthand. Although my mother’s hallucinations of “Los Americanos” stealing her social security checks in a grand scheme to get her evicted are unfounded, I know that they are rooted in very real trauma and fear around the double displacement many Puerto Ricans experienced moving from the archipelago to the contiguous U.S. I know that they are rooted in her anxieties around not having a place to live. Whenever I am helping her navigate a hallucinatory state, I think about how different things might have been if she felt safe enough to seek out mental health treatment instead of being forced to figure out where we were going to sleep. According to the National Alliance On Mental Illness, “the lack of safe and affordable housing is one of the most powerful barriers to recovery.”

“I wonder about the idea of permanent housing in a country where safe, stable homes and access to care have always been privileges reserved for the highest bidder, and what this means for our communities.”

Elisabet Velasquez

As a Puerto Rican writer who came into the exploration of my identity in relation to issues like colonization, displacement, and economic disenfranchisement later in age, I often wonder who my mother and I would have been if we weren’t forced to spend so much of our time trying to survive. I think about the young woman I was having a panic attack at work from the anxiety of survival and how my decisions to stay in unhealthy relationships solely to maintain housing may have impacted my children and their own mental health. I think about the mental health of the families who were torn apart by policies that were never in the best interests of the people. I think about the “cool,” “edgy” Bushwick everyone loves now, this culture that was built on the suffering of Black and Latine people.

While I now have the tools and language to help me navigate these tough conversations around mental health and housing, I still worry. Most of all, I wonder about the idea of permanent housing in a country where safe, stable homes and access to care have always been privileges reserved for the highest bidder and what this means for our communities and neighborhoods now and generations to come.

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