We believe in the power of storytelling and the importance of investing in the future by sharing those stories – whether they are stories of successful community ventures or lessons learned from stories of things you wish happened just a little bit differently. These are the stories of communities working together for the common good. This article is part of “We Are Here: Housing Insecurity in Cincinnati,” a series produced by Women of Cincy and originally published at womenofcincy.org/housing.
Interview by Suzanne Wilder. Photography by Stacy Wegley. | When we arrived at Lydia’s House, we found a scene familiar to new parents: Janell Roberts was making a sandwich in the kitchen, hoping to eat a quick meal while her infant slept in a nearby room. She chewed a little quicker as her baby fussed, then gratefully accepted our offers to hold her daughter so that she could eat with two hands. Her daughter was at the developmental stage – with impossibly tiny toes and fuzzy hair – when gentle swaying worked best to soothe her cries.
Lydia’s House is, briefly, a home. It is a wooden swing and strollers on a front porch; worn floral couches in the living room; chatter in the kitchen and tea brewing for guests; a long dining table with eclectic seats and high chairs for kids; children’s books stacked on a low bookshelf. It is also a women’s shelter, one that allows women and kids to find community, safe housing, and extra hands in times of crisis.
For Janell Roberts, Lydia’s House was the place where she could bring her newborn home until she finds longer-term, affordable housing. We talked to her about her experiences with foster care, homelessness and shelters, and her hopes for life with her newborn daughter, Rhyale.
At the end of the conversation, our photographer Stacy took photos of mother and daughter and asked a beautiful question: What do you hope for Rhyale?
Janell’s answer was one that so many loving parents would say: “I wish for everything for her; as much as I can give.”
Tell us about yourself.
I was raised in the foster care system. Everything is not always pleasant there. Some people make it out okay; it’s not always that way. I was in the foster care system from age 3 to 18. At 18, I was emancipated ‒ I felt wrongfully emancipated. I became homeless the same day. It is really hard to figure out what do next. At 18, you’re still a kid, even though legally you’re an adult. It’s really hard trying to figure out life.
When you say you were raised in the foster care system, did you move from family to family or house to house frequently?
Yes. It wasn’t always based off of my behavioral issues or my anger or whatever you call it. It was mostly based off of some things that foster parents did, or the case worker felt the need to move you to a new home, or the time was up, or to get someone else in. And it was just like, you really don’t know why. Sometimes the foster parents just don’t want you anymore. That happens. So, after a while you kind of get used to it, and it just becomes a normal thing. Some people just don’t unpack. Sometimes I slept with my shoes on… They may come get me in the middle of the night.
After being emancipated, I received help from Greater Cincinnati Behavioral Services, which is a great facility in Cincinnati, and sometimes they have downfalls, but most of the people are trying to help you. They want to help you. From there, they got me into a residential group home. That was a living situation for me for awhile. That was going to adult group homes and then a couple shelters. I still had yet to get on my feet. After all that process, I was in my second group home and trying to leave because I didn’t feel really comfortable. And then I found out I was pregnant.
So then I’m going to Lighthouse and got on their outreach program, and they referred me to Lydia’s House, which was the best thing. I was kind of nervous at first. I don’t know these people; they’re not really a shelter. They’re just a community, trying to help community people. Like, why are they trying to help me? What is their benefit from helping me? And they were so nice. I was still suspicious, like, why are you so nice to me? It became more and more a home setting. Someone I could call on even if I’m not here, just to talk to them, just to speak. I’ve been here with a couple females that have left and gone and got their homes. It’s that feeling of, “Am I next?”
It has to be nice with a teeny tiny baby to have people around you. I mean, if you had moved into a house, a couple months ago, you’d be by yourself. Whereas here you do have some extra hands around.
I think if I moved in a house – not that I wasn’t capable of doing it; I’m definitely capable – it’s just because, like I said, I had a bad past. I have depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Something just does not come easy. You know, I mean, after all of the birth, your hormones are changing; you just, like, cry for no reason.
I was really worried. I even had an anxiety attack before she [Rhyale] was here. The anxiety attack was so bad that I couldn’t speak. Just worrying about how I want to make her life better and do things that I needed to do. Because you have nine months. It’s hard. You know, you can’t become rich in nine months.
How do you put together a plan to get to that point where you can have your own space?
We’ve been working on a plan for a while. With Lydia’s House… They talk a lot about certain things; they have these papers we fill out and it’s like goal setting. They give us, basically, options of what we want to learn while we’re here, what we want to achieve. Budgeting, cooking, learning how to cook and feed and change diapers. Healthy eating. Trying to get housing, get schooling. Trying to get a job; trying to get a bank account; learning a trade.
When I first got here, I said, “I want to learn about budgeting.” We did budgeting class. I wasn’t like, completely not knowledgeable about it. I knew something… It’s just trying to save the money instead of spending it [snaps] right like that. That was more of the things that I wanted to learn – what is necessary for me to spend; what is not necessary for me to spend.
I also asked for crib safety because I didn’t know about that. I know how to change diapers. I know how to feed a baby, but it was just like, if she’s going to be safe to sleep on her own. What should I do if she was to stop breathing? Things like that.
My plan was to get either subsidized housing or Section 8, because my income is not a full income; it is partial [from government assistance]. I won’t be able to pay market rent on my own. Sometimes they look on your record, even if its a misdemeanor or something that happened years ago. So I was denied one of my housings. Not all of them, but one, and the others are like three years’ waiting list.
You mentioned the sort of things that led to being banned from shelters or housing. Do you have some misdemeanors or criminal things on your record that show up?
So last year, I was at a services facility past the hour you could be there. They closed at 4:30. I was really homeless. Like, I needed help. What am I going to do? No one wants to be homeless. No one wants to live on the street. No one wants to deal with sleeping on a bench or on the grass or under a bridge. I went there all day, and I didn’t receive the help that I thought I would. Which became complicated and frustrating. I ended up staying a little bit past the hours, so they ended up calling the police. I didn’t fight; I didn’t hit anyone, but I held onto the door. They charged me with resisting arrest and trespassing, because it was after hours. So that looks horrible on anything – on a resume, a job application, or anything like that.
But there’s a mental health court, for people with mental health issues; their punishments are a little different. There’s still punishments, but they go based off mental health. To go into that court, you have to plead guilty. And they can help you, and from there you can get your record expunged. So right after I got done with court, they put you on a year probation, and then you can get [your record cleared]. I’ll be done by January of next year. Hopefully I’ll be done sooner, because I’m doing really good.
You mentioned that you work off and on.
So my first job was at Kroger, when I was 19, and that was a long time ago. And that didn’t last very long. I didn’t know what I was doing, at all. I didn’t know how to sign in. I would try to follow instructions, and it wouldn’t work at all. Then I worked at Easterseals, in a construction course, a trade thing they were teaching me about. I did that partially and didn’t finish. I did side jobs; I’d do people’s hair. They’d pay me, and I’d have money in my pocket. That kept me happy for a while. I finished school and got that done. Before I found out I was pregnant, I was working at Easterseals again trying a trade course. After a while, people don’t like hiring pregnant women. So I was pregnant and jobless. We went through the government and got some assistance, and I’m just saving that for housing. And I’m buying her stuff with the other half of what I don’t save.
You do seem really self-aware about some of the past experiences you’ve had. So what has changed from age 18 to 19 to now at age 23?
A lot has changed. I have changed. I’m really humble. If you knew me back then, when I had no filter, and I had no control… I never want to be that person again. I don’t want to be angry, because it’s not a good feeling. You have no friends when you’re angry; you have none at all. Basically, I grew up. That’s one of the big things that changed. I just gradually stopped being angry. Because it wasn’t getting me anywhere. It wasn’t getting me anywhere to get help. People don’t want to talk to me. People didn’t want to deal with me; they were afraid of me.
And when you find your inner self, it’s so much better. Like, I’m just this goofy, silly person. And I’ve just always kind of been hidden because I had this outside anger. When this goofy, silly, gooey person was on the inside. And no one would know that.
What else would you want people to know about your experiences?
I would want people to understand that life in foster care is not always easy, but it’s not always bad. You know, I feel that they should be a little bit more careful, a little more open, about whose homes they give children to. And I would also like good families for every child that’s out there. If case managers and jobs and family CEOs, if they’re listening, if they’re watching: Please be aware of what you’re doing for this child. They need true and kind love. Not just to be switched and moved and placed. They’re not pieces of mail. You don’t just move them and pack them and place them and scar them after a while. They’re human beings, and they deserve better.
I would also like to say that, coming from my situation and my life… Anyone can make it. I have yet to feel like I’ve made it. But I feel like I’m on the way. To have that feeling that you’re on the way to making it or to being someone is greater than feeling that you’re not. Keep that positivity in your mind and keep striving for something better. There’s always light at the end of the tunnel. There’s always some way or some how that you’re going to make it. Sometimes you need to give yourself inspiration. Don’t always go looking for it somewhere else. Give yourself your own light.