Special to the Herald
NEW BRITAIN - Angie was 17 the first time she was hit by the man who would become her husband. For the next 15 years that “just became our relationship,” she said as her life was turned into one of fear and escape attempts. All of this the while her four children - two girls and two boys - were looking to her for protection.
“The first time I left, I was 18 and my oldest daughter was about 6 months. I went to a shelter. Three weeks later, he came and picked me up,” Angie, who asked that her last name not be used, recalled. “I was scared. I’d wake up and wonder, ‘What is he going to do to me?’”
Angie met her husband when she was 15. At the time, she was living in Queens, New York, where she had moved from the Lower East Side of Manhattan to attend eighth grade. She was able to move after her mother got approved for Section 8, a federal program that assists recipients with paying rent. Before then, she had been content living in Manhattan where she focused on sports and writing. She had even submitted her stories and poems to contests that won turkey dinners and Christmas trees for her family. The move was still tough, however, and it even forced Angie to give up a basketball scholarship. This took a toll on her.
“I started drinking, smoking pot, cutting school and getting into very bad things with my ‘friends’,” she said, gesturing quotation marks around the last word. “I ran away once when I was 14. I became a very bad girl.”
In 2012, after a dreadful 15 years, Angie had endured enough. She packed up her things, left with the kids and took residence in a domestic violence shelter. By then, her abuser had threatened Angie’s life multiple times.
As she was seeking a place where she could take refuge once and for all, Angie applied for shelters in several states. Connecticut was the only one with space for her and her children. After six months she ended up at the public housing complexes of the New Britain Housing Authority (NBHA). Being accepted felt like a dream.
“I don’t know where I or my children would be without NBHA. We’d probably still be in the domestic violence shelter,” Angie said.
Now 37, Angie is getting her life back. She’s putting her children through school. Her unit at NBHA won a mini makeover, instilling the feeling in her that she finally has a home. She’s learning how to properly take care of flowers for the first time and is working on getting herself to a point where she can be “the one giving opportunities to others.”
This transformation, Angie believes, wouldn’t be possible if she had not been accepted to public housing at NBHA. She used to be ashamed of her circumstances, but now she tells anyone who asks where she lives.
“For someone that needs it and can appreciate it, (public housing) can be the stepping stone they need to help them get to where they really want to be,” she said, adding that she hopes others will be touched by her story and will better understand why people like her call public housing home.
Angie’s story is one that John T. Hamilton is familiar with. As the NBHA’s executive director, Hamilton sees people from all walks of life apply for public housing.In addition to overseeing the success of the NBHA’s residents, Hamilton strives to change the negative connotation associated with living in public housing.
“Coming from public housing doesn’t mean you can’t achieve great things in this life,” Hamilton stressed, sitting at the desk of his small office. “The idea that everyone in public housing is lazy, everyone in public housing is up to no good, everyone in public housing are criminals and have no dreams - absolutely false. These are people who have dreams, ambitions and people they love.”
Hamilton can attest to what he preaches. He is a product of public housing, and he lived in a complex in Brooklyn, New York from fourth grade until he went off for college. His father worked at Bellevue Hospital and attended to those who were brought in after the World Trade Center came down. His mother had many jobs, ranging from childcare to volunteer work, in addition to parenting Hamilton and his siblings. However, he never felt like he was different from anyone else.
“I didn’t see it as public housing. I saw it as a place to live. You went outside and played, you made friends and, of course, there was always a negative element, but that’s everywhere. You just lived,” Hamilton recalled.
“It’s just really discouraging to take a group and to assume that they’re limited just because they have limited resources,” he continued. “They judge public housing by those who abuse the system. There are some smart, talented and gifted artists, musicians and athletes here, but you’ll never see their caliber as long as the label is seen as a blight.”
Public housing is an affordable form of housing for those who have limited means of income. Headed by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, the program includes more than just providing those in need with a place to live. The program also can teach residents self-sufficiency through lessons on how to manage their savings and career advancement.
Applicants can wait from six months up to six years before they’re housed and undergo background checks. Once settled, they pay 30 percent of their income for rent and must adhere to their lease like at any other residence.
Hamilton sees it as especially important that those who end up moving in feel a sense of community. The NBHA complexes have basketball courts and a playground so that “kids can be kids,” he said, and a garden open for all to use. Hamilton tries to highlight anything that helps residents live comfortably as citizens of New Britain.
“I remember my parents always making the best of their apartment. My dad would dress it up on the inside and would make it so that when we come in, it felt like our home. People here do the same thing. They make it homes for their families to thrive. You’re just limited in the resources that you have,” he explained.
Angie treasures it as well, saying that life without support from her NBHA and New Britain neighbors would have been difficult.
“I grew up with tough love. My kids had tough love from their father. The togetherness we have makes it (home) because we didn’t have that before,” she said.
The end-goal for Angie is standing onstage in front of hundreds of people to tell her story. For Hamilton, it’s not only to make sure that people like Angie achieve their aspirations, but also to work toward a state where there’s no need for public housing. That means more funding to get people on their feet and to eradicate poverty. He says the money NBHA has now isn’t quite sufficient for such a feat.
“It’s never enough when you understand the nature of poverty in America,” Hamilton described. “There are people who are doing better, but there are also people who are doing worse. We have a responsibility to increase their quality of life, not in terms of just where they live, but also in terms of providing them with the skills and the opportunities to do better.”
“The needs of people in public housing are no different than the needs of any other human being or family in America. It’s just when you think of public housing, it refers to those who have low income, but they’re people, too,” he said.
Kristina Vakhman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.