From Homeless Shelter to Her First Apartment


Ms. Bowen’s housing situation collapsed a few weeks before she turned 19, but it had been somewhat precarious since she immigrated to the United States from Guyana at 11, leaving behind her mother and five sisters to join her father in New York. Ms. Bowen, who has cerebral palsy and additional complications stemming from a difficult breech birth, said the initial motivation for the move here was for surgery to straighten her hamstring.

Name: Tamantra Bowen

Age: 21 Occupation: Intern at a Brooklyn day care center Rent: $1,500 a month, of which Ms. Bowen pays $175, or 30 percent of her current income. The balance is covered by the Cerebral Palsy Associations of New York State, with funds provided by the New York State Office for People With Developmental Disabilities. On the Cerebral Palsy Associations’ assistance: “I would like to get off the program, but that’s a work in progress,” Ms. Bowen said. “I want to move on, and I don’t want to be stuck. But I really appreciate all the help.” Furniture: Ms. Bowen received a grant of $4,632 from the Office for People With Developmental Disabilities to furnish the apartment. “Someone comes with furniture, books, and you choose what you want,” she said. “Now I’m just working on putting on my little touches.” Among the complications of living alone: Envious friends. “I think because I have my own place and I’m so young a lot of people are jealous of me,” Ms. Bowen said. “But I’m working on not letting anyone put me down because I’m trying to make my life better.”

After the surgery, her father, a long-haul truck driver, sent her to live with a friend in Flatbush, Brooklyn — a woman, now in her 70s, whom Ms. Bowen “adopted” as an aunt.

The arrangement ended when Ms. Bowen was 17 and her father got into a bad car accident. She decided to join him in Reading, Pa., where he had moved, but found life there difficult. He was often angry and erratic, she said, and he would travel to Guyana for months at a time, leaving her alone and without access to transportation.

After high school, she was no longer able to live with him, she said. She discovered her immigration papers had expired, meaning that she could neither work nor gain access to a local shelter.

The family of a high-school friend agreed to allow her to live with them temporarily. And after a series of panicked phone calls, the occupational therapist from her old school in Brooklyn offered to let Ms. Bowen stay in her Bay Ridge home for up to a year — about the time it would take for Ms. Bowen to get her green card.

Working with the Door, a social service agency for youths, she was able to get both the green card and her work authorization within eight months. (Her move to the United States was sponsored by her father, who had become a citizen.)

Photo

“For one person, it’s pretty spacious,” said Ms. Bowen.

Credit
Edu Bayer for The New York Times

“I moved into the shelter four days after my 20th birthday,” Ms. Bowen said. “My therapist was so sad, and crying. I was like, ‘Girl, I’m looking at this like going to college.’ ”

Though moving to the shelter felt like a milestone after a year in limbo, reality quickly sank in. Covenant House, the first shelter she went to, was a short-term facility, typically limited to 30-day stays, though Ms. Bowen said she remained for four months, with extensions.

She then went to a longer-term shelter for adolescents in East New York but struggled to find a job that would allow her to earn enough to move out. With her 21st birthday approaching, she learned that she was eligible for housing assistance through the Cerebral Palsy Associations of New York State, a program funded by New York State’s Office for People With Developmental Disabilities.

Ms. Bowen, who has an internship four days a week at a day care center by Broadway Junction, pays 30 percent of her income — or $175 a month — toward the $1,500-a-month rent for the one-bedroom.

“For one person, it’s pretty spacious,” Ms. Bowen said. “I have a lot of closet space — every girl’s dream.”

Of living alone, she said: “It’s nice that I don’t have to smell anyone’s feet. I can clean, and I don’t have to worry about anyone messing it up.”

More important, she can cook what she likes (roasted vegetables are a favorite), come home whenever she likes (no more curfew) and put up Christmas decorations. It’s also easier to budget, she said, now that she no longer returns home to find, say, that someone has used up her entire bottle of conditioner.

While the apartment quickly felt like home, Coney Island has been more of an adjustment. “This place is nice in the summer,” she said, “but in the winter, it’s very windy. The cold and the wind turn everything to ice, and when the wind picks up, it wants to push you off the tarmac.”

Ms. Bowen said she was so focused on getting settled last summer that she didn’t enjoy Coney Island’s finest season. She doesn’t intend to let another summer slip away.

“I already made plans with a co-worker to go boardwalk dancing,” she said.

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