A room of her own
Erica shows off her new apartment, which she shares with two-year old daughter. Two months ago, she was homeless.
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Erica, a petite 20-year old dressed in a black turtleneck and glasses, sat in the kitchen of a scrupulously neat and sparse apartment. Her apartment. She surveyed the room, taking in the cherry-adorned shades as the sunlight comes through and smiling as she showed off her two-year old daughter’s painting she just brought home from pre-school. Erica said that she can’t wait to hang it up on the wall.
The apartment is new to Erica and her daughter; it’s been two months since she moved in—two months since she was homeless, living with her daughter in the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter, and working tirelessly for a way out.
Home was never a stable place for Erica. Growing up, her family faced poverty, and when she began working at age 14, her parents demanded that she take care of herself financially. This included purchasing her own bed when her family moved from Lawrence, Mass. to Waterville during her junior year of high school. After a couple of months, Erica raised the $1,000 she needed to buy herself a mattress and bed frame.
“It was hard growing up,” she said, “but I learned how to be an adult very early. It’s a good thing because it prepares you for reality.” Her family moved back to Mass., but when her daughter was born, Erica returned to Maine and found herself straddling the two worlds.
“I caught myself moving back and forth because I wanted to transition my life up here, but it was hard because I didn’t have the friends and family I knew I had down there, so that was always holding me back. But every time I went back it was always worse or hard for me.”
Although she was starting community college in Massachusetts, she had no place to stay. Her parents were divorced; “My mom didn’t care for me—kicked me out of the house for no reason,” she said, and her father had custody of her two sisters and had no room for Erica in his tiny apartment.
Both her aunt and her grandmother live here in Maine, and although they have been incredibly supportive of Erica, they could not house her for more than a couple of weeks each; her grandmother is on state housing, and Erica is not covered under her aunt’s lease.
With her daughter’s father mainly out of the picture, housing opportunities sealing themselves off around her and circumstances unwinding beyond her control, Erica turned to the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter (MMHS) for a place to stay.
“It was hard for me to go into the Shelter,” she said. “It was really hard….I always thought I would have my parents who would help me out”; but she didn’t have them. She was quite on her own.
She spent only two months at MMHS, “but I was always on top of things,” like her college registration paperwork and aid applications. “That’s why I think it went quicker for me [at the Shelter]….I didn’t want to be there long, you know? I wanted to have my own life, to have my daughter have her own room—her own things.”
The first night was hard; both daughter and mother cried for hours. MMHS was housing another three families between two rooms at the time. For Erica, the hardest aspect of living in the Shelter was sharing the small space with so many others—not being able to control her daughter’s environment.
During Erica’s stay, MMHS worked with her on paperwork to get her on her feet and get back into college. They helped her find her apartment and to stock it with furniture, pots, pans and other amenities. When moving day came, they helped her move in.
She’s on a six-month Stability Through Engagement Program (STEP) to help pay rent and she receives food stamps to help feed herself and her daughter. And she’s in her first semester at Kennebec Valley Community College—where she said she is eager to learn “a million different things”—to set her daughter up for a bright future.
“It’ll be easier to find jobs, rather than having just a high school diploma,” she said. “I want to go to school…to get a lot of money so I can get a house, just for [my daughter].”
Now the two, who “were always hopping from place to place,” are settled in, and Erica beamed from ear to ear when she thought about how happy her daughter is to have a room of her own.
Although she’s in her own apartment now, Erica said, “They still help out even though I don’t stay there anymore.” Her last visit to the Shelter, though, was to donate clothing and shoes to help the cause for the people who gave so much to her.
Looking to the future, Erica will continue her studies and is on the hunt for a part-time job, especially as her STEP assistance is set to end in January.
“In a way I’m thankful” for her struggles, she said, “because [my daughter] is so young, and she won’t really remember most of it, but she’ll have the knowledge that ‘my mom did this to get me here.’ And that was really my main focus, you know?”
“I’m still learning about myself,” she said. “I still can’t say exactly who I am.”
She paused to reflect. “It made me stronger.”