Reconciling Poverty and Privilege in My Life, and Cambridge

I want to start by saying, now, that I’m one of the lucky - the privileged - 15% of people in Cambridge that live in University housing. But more importantly, I want to address the unfathomable amount of residents that are financially insecure - 40% of people. That’s more people in total than those that can comfortably afford a place to live. Cambridge defines a comfortable “living affordability threshold” as $92,000 for a family of four. There are over 32,000 people here that are eligible for housing assistance -- just under a third of all residents. Furthermore, there are about 45,000 people that are financially insecure and feel, in varying degrees, the constant pressure, the unease, the unsettling, and the disruptive forces of housing instability.

Housing and financial instability are listed as the top two issues affecting health in the 2013 Cambridge Community Health Assessment. Both issues not only affect physical health but also greatly affect an individual’s emotional well-being. Having to balance the trade off between quality of life and fundamental necessities (like food, hygiene, and overall security) can lead to unnecessary stress, which can be seriously detrimental for one's overall well-being. While trying to juggle both school, social life, family, and possibly work, the added stress of wondering about whether or not you can afford food, where you are going to sleep that night, taking care of your siblings while your parents are working, or how you’re going to find time to finish your homework on time can be overwhelming, especially for a young person.

Unfortunately, this sort of experience is far too common amongst Cambridge youth. Although Cambridge’s median household income ($75,909) is above that of Massachusetts as a whole, over 50% of Cambridge public school students are living at or below the poverty line. The median market price of a single family home is over 1.25 million dollars and this is only increasing with time. In the ten years between 2004 and 2014, the figures for homes and condos increased by 50-100%. Furthermore, Cambridge has higher rates of family poverty in comparison to Massachusetts across the board, even with its higher median income. The income inequality gap in Cambridge is larger than the majority of the entire state. There also exists a growing service gap between affordable housing for low-income households, and very few options for middle-income households.

The evident problem of homelessness and the need for more affordable housing options in Cambridge is much more serious than most people realize. Although there is a cultural association of homelessness with people living in the streets and homeless shelters, this is often the extreme. Homelessness can take many forms. More often than not, homelessness can be living in one’s car, couch-surfing, living in transitional housing, or living with friends with no permanent address. While the form of homelessness of the unsheltered population is much more visible and unfortunate, the less visible, unacknowledged population of homeless individuals and families in shelters, transitional housing, or “doubled up” with friends and family, is much greater in number. It is important to acknowledge the ever-changing forms of poverty and homelessness -- especially as the prevalence of poverty for families in Cambridge rises.

I experienced a degree of what it feels like to face housing and financial instability when I was fifteen-years-old. My own experience navigating poverty is why I keep these issues closest to my heart. My family’s experience of being displaced from our home and living with friends for several months is what catalyzed my passion and commitment to public service today.

In January of 2013, the spring of my freshman year of high school, my mother parted ways with her job. We salvaged every dollar as we grappled with an extreme drop in our family’s income. My mother had to strategize on affording groceries each week, and we cut done on driving because we had to save any possible expense. I knew my family had experienced elements of poverty prior to this experience, but this was a whole new level of instability. All throughout my middle school years, my sisters and I attended some of the most well-endowed public schools, while we were also enrolled in the free and reduced lunch program and living well under the poverty line. My high school experience was even more contradictory. I attended Catlin Gabel on a scholarship (one of the most expensive and academically rigorous private schools in the area) while my family struggled to make ends meet.

By April of that year, my mother decided that we could not afford to continue living in our home. So, she moved us out of our home and rented it out. For eight months, until my mother got us back on our feet, we were displaced from our home and lived with our good friends. My commute to and from school jumped to nearly two hours on public transportation every day.

Every morning, I had to leave around 5:30 am to get to school in time for morning choir and often wouldn’t get home until after dinner was served. My grades suffered, and so did my mental and physical health. I was constantly anxious and barely sleeping, feeling hopeless, emotionally conflicted, and frustrated that I could not to do anything to help my family.

Through conversing with the homeless women I would regularly see on my way to school, who were in much worse living situations than I was, I began to understand how blessed my family was, even with our housing and financial instability. What facing poverty reaffirmed for me was that all I had and truly needed was my mother, my two sisters, and our friends who became family. My mother had to (and continues to) sacrifice and fight for my sisters and me. Regardless of our poverty, my mother worked to ensure that we maintained our strong family bond, upheld our family values, and that stellar educational opportunities were available for us.

My family really values education. My maternal grandparents immigrated here from Taiwan for higher education and for a better life for their kids. I am the daughter of two Ivy-educated individuals. My mother attended Harvard College, where I am currently a freshman, and I was born during her first year at Columbia Law School. Although we commonly associate the brand names of these schools and higher education with financial success, that is not always the case. In fact, a recent report on Income Insecurity in Cambridge found that 84% of survey respondents had a college degree or higher, but even with an overwhelmingly high level of education and annual income level, 18.5% of those surveyed answered that they struggled with paying monthly expenses on time.

My mother went on to work in corporate law in New York City, where I was born and raised -- saving nothing and spending her earnings on basic living expenses, education, and opportunities to immerse her kids in culture. I was a busy child, with daily schedules booked to the rim with music and dance classes. She left the corporate world when I was five-years-old and my youngest sister was born -- wanting to be a present mother for her three kids and to protect them from an abusive father.

When I was nine-years-old, my parents separated and my mother moved my sisters and I out to the West Coast. For the next nine years of my life, my mother would continue to prioritize our safety and education, understanding the potential that we had if provided with the right resources — and for that, I am eternally grateful.

During our time of displacement, though we lacked a formal address and home, my sisters and I did have a place to sleep. We had friends who welcomed us into their homes and made us family. We were much more fortunate than many who are not surrounded by so many willing, helping hands. Many do sleep on the streets, in shelters, and without a bed. Our housing instability was a situation that opened my eyes to the different faces of poverty and homelessness.

My family moved back into our own home at the end of December 2013. The turning point for me -- both in my mindset and pushing me to take action -- really came sometime three months later when I spent a night in a women’s shelter on my own, trying to hide bruises on my face. At the age of sixteen, I found myself in an abusive relationship and felt that I would burden my mother after realizing how much she had sacrificed to protect our family. In reflecting on conversations that I had with others in much worse living situations than I was that night, I came to realize that I had a choice to be safe and had opportunities to move forward, and I had to be maximizing the potential of having that privilege to give back.

My understanding of how blessed I am with the family support and values that I have, the resources that have been made available to me through education and employment, in combination with my personal understanding of what it feels like to feel homeless and experience financial instability, have all cultivated my passion and commitment to service.

Within a few months, in June of 2014, I founded an organization that would become PERIOD -- to serve a need I had never thought about before, which I learned about through conversations with homeless women during my family’s time of displacement: menstruation. The success of PERIOD has been made possible by the education and networking opportunities I have had throughout my teenage years. Additionally, my mother, who had recently started teaching nonprofit management, was able to be my key advisor and founding board president as I started the nonprofit organization.

I serve because it is my way of reconciling the privilege I have to be where I am today. I recognize that I have had many more advantages and opportunities than most and I want to use these advantages to bring others success, stability, and equality.

I am writing this piece first and foremost to bring attention to how urgent and serious the housing crisis that Cambridge faces is today, but also to be fully transparent on my background and why I am so passionate about affordable housing. I stand as a candidate that embodies and advocates for full transparency and accountability. With past press relations for my work with PERIOD, I have had experiences where sound bites are taken from my interviews to paint a “homeless to Harvard” narrative. We certainly did not have a permanent home and at the time, but I also feel the importance of clarifying the blessings we had through it all in each other.

Cambridge needs to build more affordable housing options, prioritizing that over luxury real estate development, and also work to make the transition out of qualifying for affordable housing more seamless in order to incentivize those living in poverty to strive towards increasing their economic well-being. While permanent housing is a priority in strategizing how to end homelessness, it is critical that there are support services available to help homeless people find those homes and stay in them.

In Cambridge, we barely have enough beds for those who need them. On an average night, at least 90% of beds are being used by individuals or families in emergency shelters, transitional housing, or permanent supportive housing respectively. According to the 2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report, 50% of families in Cambridge that end up in an emergency homeless shelter stayed there for longer than six months. While there are short and long-term services available for homeless individuals, the resources available are far from meeting the needs of Cambridge’s homeless population. According to a recent Income Insecurity Report, Cambridge lacks over 100 Permanent Supportive Housing Units to meet the need. Last year, over 500 people nightly were homeless, and over 20% of them were families who lived in emergency shelters or transitional housing. The issue doesn’t seem to be slowing down, as last year was an increase in homelessness compared to years prior.

The worst part about this crisis is that there is so much more that we could be doing in terms of offering solutions to fight these issues. We are definitely making exciting progress, but there are still many resources that can be utilized to combat the housing and poverty crisis that we face today.  We just celebrated jumping from a zoning inclusion requirement of 11.5% to 20% of newly developed residential units having to be affordable housing options, and now it is time to ensure that it will be enforced. We need to move forward with other strategies — like opening up more available housing units to Cambridge residents that need them. A projected 48.8% of people in Cambridge report that they are unable to save money at the end of each month, limiting the chances of moving out of poverty. Cambridge needs to prioritize working on ways to support workers and families in general to make the transition into financial security more feasible.

Who we are and what we are passionate about stem from our experiences and values, and I want to hear from Cambridge residents about what issues that you find most pressing and any ideas you have for potential solutions. As I came to learn, poverty is a spectrum and I want to hear about your experiences. I push myself to be transparent and am always committed to being honest about what I have been through, and I hope to engage in authentic and personal conversations with as many Cantabrigians as I can. Please do not hesitate to reach out and engage. I am running to represent you and would love any input!