By Rachel Robinson, Neighbors United for Progress Social Media Director & Housing Advocate Advisor
When you live in low income housing or communities, sometimes you get lucky but sometimes you don’t. Growing up poor, my family moved from neighborhood to neighborhood, from hotel to motel like it was normal. My siblings and I felt like Child Protective Services (CPS) were our friend when we knew they were not. My neighborhoods had a lot of drama, gun and other violence, and drug activity. We resorted to handling issues in the ‘hood or within the projects because police would most likely treat us like suspects. These and other conditions of my experiences with low income housing are why I became a housing advocate.
Living with my brothers and grandmother on the outskirts of Austin, Texas was a blessing. Oak Hill, the family-oriented neighborhood we called home, was beautiful, full of playgrounds, schools, and stores. The community had plenty of resources and families had back yards. Oak Hill was a low income community at its finest: the crime rate was low and use of drugs was rare there.
In the 1990s, my grandmother decided she wanted to move into public housing in Bouldin Creek, a neighborhood closer to the inner city. While we didn’t have much privacy due to monthly check-ins from the housing authority, we did have access to the city and to bus routes. Bouldin Creek turned out to be very different from Oak Hill: it was in one of the most violent neighborhoods in south Austin. Rapes, gang activity, drunk driving, and fights were common. However, there was a bright side: with our new address I was able to enroll in a prestigious school where I flourished as a competitive student.
Winter brought tough times for my family. My grandma couldn’t take care of us anymore due to losing her job, so my siblings and I went to live with my mom, who struggled with drug problems. She lived in an abandoned hotel without lights, water, or working toilets. Worried for my brothers, I did everything under the sun to make money to provide school clothes, hot food, and other necessities. My mother is beautiful and smart, but drugs took over her life. CPS interviewed us constantly but never removed us from our mother. While we did not want to be taken away, what we were going through was not right.
My mother eventually ended up in jail, so my family was separated and displaced once again. My aunt took me into her home in a trailer park that felt like the projects. I attended the poorest and most embarrassing school I have ever been in: it had bugs, holes in the walls, and textbooks in dire condition. In the ninth grade, I ended up getting pregnant. Teen mom was added to the list of labels already applied to me: black, woman, crack baby, welfare and food-stamp user, a prostitute. I felt like these titles would never change unless I changed them, so I did. I got an apartment, won custody of my child, and eventually graduated with two kids.
Later, I moved to Mason Manor, one of the most dangerous and violent projects in Texas. The living conditions weren’t great: there was a lot of rust, roaches, maintenance issues, faulty air conditioning, and a host of other problems. We lived there for three weeks before moving to live with family. Eventually, we moved into a market-rate apartment in another poor area. This apartment was infested with centipedes, roaches, bees, and other critters. While I didn’t want to live there, we stayed for two years.
We moved to a duplex run by a slumlord, where roaches were embedded into the closets, doors, and any opening or cracks. The windows lacked screens and didn’t lock; the driveway was in awful shape. The tub filled with backflow from the sewer and toilet, so some days we couldn’t take a bath. One day, the breaker caught fire and we lost power in half the house for about two months.
At 28 years old, I was homeless. My entire family of six was living in my suburban and on couches for nine months before finding help from the Foundation for the Homeless. They found a three-bedroom, one and a half bath home with utilities paid for and rent of $1,350 a month. It didn’t matter if we were in market-rate or public housing, we always felt like being low income was the issue. Sometimes we got lucky, sometimes we didn’t. The neighborhoods I lived in were usually drug infested and prone to violence. I was too scared to let my kids play outside and I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Our landlords rarely treated us with respect, convinced that they were giving us a hand out so we should pay our rent and be quiet.
At age 14, I learned that where I live is important. Escaping poverty would be hard, but I knew I had to try. I went to school and got a certification in Medical Billing & Coding. I’m also a licensed hair stylist. Even so, people assume things because of my address in a low income neighborhood. I want more for my kids: I do not want them to live my childhood realities. They are why I am a housing advocate: I push for better affordable housing in hopes of changing their futures.
Rachel is now the social media director and housing advocate advisor of Neighbors United for Progress (NUP). NUP is a group of neighbors who came together to focus on the betterment of their community and to raise awareness in the areas of affordable housing, crime and safety, and youth development.
Read about NUP’s 2017 NLIHC Organizer Award nomination at: https://hfront.org/category/organizer-awards/