When the System Failed Me During the Pandemic, My Community Saved Me

updated Mar 27, 2021
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Credit: Photo: Getty Images, Photo: Apartment Therapy

My life turned completely upside down on March 16, 2020. That was the day my university emailed our student body to get out of the dorms and go home. 

The email floored me. I was preparing to have an uneventful spring break, and suddenly I would be made homeless. While you could write to appeal if you had “extraordinary circumstances,” being granted the right to remain in student housing would be incredibly rare, and what my university’s email did not seem to account for was simple: I had nowhere else to go where I could feel safe. Over the last three years at college, I had been able to slowly build a strong network of friends and colleagues that allowed me to heal from a turbulent childhood. Even if I was willing to leave all of that behind, the nearest place I could weather the COVID-19 storm was 1,725 miles away. Without the cocooning of my Twin XL bed and the overpriced deli on the ground floor of my dorm building, I would be left to fend for myself. As I noted in a call for mutual aid that was posted on an Excel spreadsheet and circulated among my peers on Instagram, the whole purpose of attending university was to not go back to what other people defined as “home” for me, but what I knew was not.

I felt the clock ticking to an ominous conclusion: being tossed out of my dorm with my half-packed boxes and onto the streets of New York City. And I knew I wasn’t alone: Nearly three in five students reported in 2019 that they experienced housing insecurity the previous year, according to The Hope Center. Eighteen percent of four-year college students were homeless.

I did not have the clairvoyance to predict a global pandemic, and I simply wasn’t in the financial class to be left unscathed by one. Fifty-eight percent of Black and Latinx people are estimated to not have the disposable income necessary to meet their basic needs for three months, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Coupled with the skyrocketing unemployment and other economic issues wrought by the pandemic, finding stable and safe housing seemed like finding a needle in a haystack. In fact, COVID-19 illustrated to us the ways late-stage capitalism both left many of us out in the cold and gave us fuel to fight. 

By the end of 2020, Black women’s unemployment rate was still nearly twice as high as it was before the pandemic. Over 150,000 Black women exited the workforce in December of last year, while 263,000 white women were entering it, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And while public companies with net worths in the billions received almost $500 million in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, only two percent of these loans were approved for Black businesses. Capitalism not only pushed us out of the labor force but denied Black employers opportunities to tackle rampant unemployment in our communities.

I was reminded of capitalism’s failures in person, too: During our dorm exodus, my roommate Alesha and I would take breaks from shoving our belongings into boxes to walk between Chinatown, Little Italy, and obscene wealth. The owner of one corner store said he could survive what’s happening, but not everyone would. He mentioned a work friend who had lost his job, and still needed to support a spouse and three kids. He said this like a confession as he rang me up. 

The only thing I knew was that everything felt awful.

In March, I was lucky. Just as I let myself feel the weight of what seemed inevitable, my phone began blowing up with listings, rent offers, and text messages all aiming to help remedy my situation. As the first wave of coronavirus gripped New York City, my best friend Zoe and her mom Lori offered their loving home uptown, in Harlem. I quickly figured out that my emotional well being relied on the act of creating home for myself time and time again. I loved sunbathing on the roof with Zoe and bonding over pop-punk bands we liked in middle school on a fire engine red beach chair. I found a home in a virtual writing workshop for Black women, and in the bittersweet, collective emotional turmoil of protests for Black lives. I realized I could find safety in people willing to talk about feeling betrayed and abandoned by our politicians, workplaces, and fellow citizens. I found community in being able to name what I felt: discarded and disposable.

Even so, I’d peer over the windowsill of the six-story walk-up whenever the lights of ambulances thrashed against the walls and see someone rolled out in a gurney. Sirens often punctuated my Zoom class, drowning out the lessons I couldn’t possibly be mentally present for. Not when the nighttime rang with harrowing coughing and hacking. Neighborhood vigils in West Harlem sprang up in tandem with the spring flowers in Riverside Park. It was insidious, and yet we had to live, so we did. 

America’s housing crisis imploded during the pandemic, and I couldn’t shake the knowledge that while I found a solution, others hadn’t been as fortunate. Over 100,000 Black women were evicted in 2020, and 250,000 more Americans were predicted to experience homelessness due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but we’ll never know the real number as the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development announced it would not be requiring street counts of the 2020 homeless population in many areas around the nation. In New York City alone, 20,000 new people were living in shelters by the end of 2020, and the COVID-19 mortality rate for homeless New Yorkers was 75 percent higher than the average city mortality rate. The deadly concoction of the racial wealth gap, racial bias in the healthcare system, and historic levels of housing discrimination and unemployment for Black Americans during the pandemic made me see with startling clarity how systems refused to care for its most vulnerable communities. 

Credit: Jendayi Omowale

I felt compelled to stand up with the people who couldn’t afford to shelter in place, or whose shelter was anything but safe. I protested at the Brooklyn Liberation March, where leaders spoke out against the murders of Black trans women, and I still remember the silence that washed over the crowd as Layleen Polanco’s sister, Melania Brown, spoke. I mourned the death of activist Oluwatoyin Salau in front of the Adam Clayton Powell Jr. State Office Building. Salau had no one to protect her from an abusive home environment, and she had been assaulted and murdered days after organizing people in protest of anti-Black racism. At the vigil, we had a chance to express collective grief about living in a society that does not protect Black women. 

My summer was filled with grief for what I was experiencing, and things I was learning how to name. As I accepted the odyssey of displacement, I found joy in the mundane. I learned how to fry queso blanco and pair it with plantain, a food I thought couldn’t get any better until the former’s introduction into my life. The seasons turned, and I marvelled at how the twisted branches of Long Island trees weighed down with snowflakes made their suburbia look like a wintered Narnia. I knew I was able to live and thrive because my community provided for me, no questions asked. My loved ones didn’t judge me for simply being unable to provide for myself while unemployed and houseless. 

Eventually, I found a home — a studio apartment, a miracle that only happened because my community didn’t make me feel guilty for having needs, they simply met them. I crack a smile when thinking about my four friends who showed up to help me pack all of my belongings in less than two hours, and my taste buds will never forget the savoriness of the lo mein my friend ordered for us after a long drive from Long Island to my apartment in the city. As the sidereal astrologer Dayna Nuckolls explains, survival is a shared burden. It is only when we recognize that we have a responsibility to each other, we can alleviate the worst personal losses in times of crisis.  

As evidenced by the sharp rise of community fridges, mutual aid funds, and so much more, Americans have turned to one another for survival. But that doesn’t mean we accepted the status quo, either: Even GoFundMe’s CEO, Tim Cadogen, pleaded to the federal government to provide more aid to its citizens after seeing crowdfunding campaigns to meet Americans’ basic needs like food, clothing, and shelter skyrocket in number as the pandemic continues. At every turn, I am reminded of the fact that the undercurrent of racism is making almost everything harder than it has to be.

I know there is nothing I could have told myself in the beginning of this crisis that would have made the journey through 2020 any easier. I hope that my 2021 passes quickly as a rainstorm and washes away the debris from last year’s devastation. I want to forget it all. But here is what I also know: When capitalism attempts to kill you, friendship can revive you.