By: Eugene K. Chow
Like many young people her age, Delisha Baez, 21, has an internship — she works at the Jamaican consulate — and like others she can’t wait to finish school, get a job, and move into her own apartment.
But unlike most people her age, Delisha lives in a homeless shelter, and for the last two years life has been a constant struggle.
At 19, just as she was about to head to Hostos Community College, Delisha gathered the courage to tell her mother a dark truth she had been hiding: she had been sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend for years.
Her mother’s reaction to the revelation stunned Delisha.
“It was hard to deal with the fact that I was being questioned and not taken care of,” she remembers. “My mom looked at me like I wasn’t her child and that I was just a liar.”
Unsupported and unsafe, Delisha had no choice but to leave home. For the next several months, she bounced from couch to couch. She did whatever it took to survive, sneaking into friends’ houses, staying with her aunt, and constantly working at odd jobs to scrape together enough money to pay for a room.
“I didn’t know where to live,” she said. “I didn’t want to sleep on park benches knowing there were rapists and murders out there.”
After several months of uncertainty, Delisha’s older sisters urged her to come home. Their mother had left with her boyfriend, so homeF was safe again. She returned and began attending college, but after two months the stress of her recent struggles coupled with the stress of college life became too much.
“I withdrew from college and got into debt. I started partying more, drinking more, and doing different drugs,” she said. “Growing up I didn’t know that I had a mental illness from the abuse.”
The drugs and alcohol were an attempt to self-medicate, but they failed to ease the pain. She was hospitalized twice for attempted suicide and suicidal ideation.
There she received mental health counseling and medication for the first time.
“They told me what was going on with me, things I didn’t even know about myself,” she said.
After she was released, she entered a drug treatment program and sought to rebuild her life. It wasn’t easy, but she was determined to succeed.
Unfortunately, her mother had returned home and married the man who had been abusing Delisha, so she had no choice but to leave home once more. Delisha had begun seriously seeing someone she had met in her drug treatment program, and together they entered the shelter system.
The intake process alone would prove to be a difficult ordeal. For 26 hours, Delisha and her partner waited in the processing center.
“You are not allowed to leave. If you leave, they throw out your application,” Delisha said. “We got there at 8am and we had to stay overnight.”
After their long wait, Delisha and her partner were admitted to one shelter, but were soon sent from shelter to shelter with little notice over the next several weeks. Eventually, they were placed in stable shelter housing in Brooklyn, and Delisha was able to focus on her future once more.
“When we got to the shelter, it was really scary,” she said. “I knew I needed a job to get out of there. We didn’t belong there.”
She saw a flyer for Opportunities for a Better Tomorrow (OBT), a Robin Hood-funded job training program, and decided to take a chance. Unmedicated and still struggling with depression, Delisha found the supportive community she needed at OBT.
“OBT gave me hope,” she said. “I would have still been depressed in bed in the shelter if it wasn’t for them.”
OBT works with young New Yorkers who are out of school, out of work, and short on opportunities and resources. The program helps more than 4,000 young New Yorkers every year gain the skills they need to find jobs, go back to school, and realize their full potential.
There she learned interview skills, got help crafting her resume, refined her “elevator pitch,” and even received monthly metro cards, checks for food, and professional clothes.
“At first, I was nervous and scared,” she said. “I didn’t know the professional world of suits and ties and it was nerve racking, but OBT helps you.”
After only three weeks with OBT, she got an interview for an internship with the Jamaican Consulate and was immediately accepted.
More than just job training, OBT helped Delisha find her confidence and a strong support network.
“OBT is not just a program to me, it’s a second family,” she said.
The past two years have been a whirlwind, but Delisha is excited and ready for the future. She plans on becoming a social worker to help young New Yorkers overcome their challenges and to show them there is hope.
Update: After this piece was completed, Delisha moved into her own apartment and began working on a book about her life and her experiences.