In the past two weeks, two amazing things have happened: I moved into affordable housing that I have been waiting for years to achieve, and I started my new position as the Communications and Development Coordinator at the Community Alliance of Tenants here in Oregon. It seems like a weird twist of fate that I would move on to do both in the span of 7 days, but justice has piercing vision.
By this point, many of you have heard my story and I’ve practiced telling it hundreds of times. I feel compelled to tell it because every time I do I feel freer. I used to feel condemned to silence, to my own discomfort, but the more I shared my story, the more solidarity and strength I have found and offered.
Years ago I was the wife of a wealthy British expat. I met him in Berlin when I was 22. I was married young, the same year I met him. He moved us to America, back to Portland where I went to college. Once he had secured American residency, I was driven out of my home and threatened with retaliation if I came back. I felt like a dog that someone didn’t want anymore. There was no fight, or lead up. I was just told to pack a bag and abandoned by a man who claimed he loved me. I had gone from rags to riches to rags again, having started my time in the United States as a Salvadoran refugee.
The rental crisis in Portland was in full swing when I found myself houseless in late summer 2014. Airbnb run amock, private developers eyed corners were beggars could scarcely sleep at night without being harassed by the City. I was scared. My husband asked me if I thought I was “too good” for the life I had left behind.
No. I was afraid. Just like my parents were, just like I was when I was a child. How horrible it was to not know where to put my head. Other women my age were cuddling their first-borns, just getting married themselves. My wedding dress was stuffed in my husband’s closet while other women asked him “Did a woman used to live here? Do you have a wife?”
There is a corner of my life I still do not understand – the futility of understanding a man’s cruelty. When rents skyrocket the way they do here in Portland, and in the Bay Area, women like me, like us, fall into desperation.
We don’t frequently think of poverty as a women’s issue, per se, but the face of poverty is female. Mothers with children, Black women, trans women, disabled women, women escaping domestic violence: these are the women who cannot afford to live alone. These are women who are coerced through capitalism to live and stay in the arms of men who make more money than them. Through no fault of their own, these women are given the choice to be homeless or go back. Rent control and the rental crisis are women’s issues.
When I was alone and picking through my last things in the luggage I lived with, I remember begging my husband to let me go home in voicemails. He deleted them, threw my letters away, but I cried out to him to please help me go home. When the pain grew too heavy, I tried to check myself into a mental health clinic for suicidal ideation. That is when I learned my husband had cut my health insurance. I was still married, still his wife, but I had no other thoughts than “he is trying to kill me.”
I often kick myself for the sense of loss I have for that man. I can still close my eyes and see him like it was yesterday. There is not a single day I don’t think about him: my husband. The only one I ever had. If there was ever a case for fate or a higher power, it was that I clawed myself out of the hole he left me in and that I am housed today.
The concierge he treated so poorly saw his actions. The neighbors he dismissed reported back to me. The baristas, the women he accosted in bars and online, many of them searched out his name and only learned who he was because of my decision to write it all down.
Years later, one of the women recognized me. She was the property manager of a new building with affordable housing. She told me I would finally have a home. I cried because I had not known that feeling for so long. I do not know where I would be now without it.
The work I am doing now represents the work that made me whole. I am letting you know that Oregon needs rent control and an end right now to no-cause evictions and extreme rent hikes. If I could have found affordable housing after my husband abandoned me, I would have been able to re-establish my life more quickly. One of the biggest indicators for whether women overcoming domestic violence can thrive is if they can find a home. You’re even more likely to find a good job if you have a stable place to live. It’s a catch 22, but it’s the reality for thousands of women in Oregon every year.
Even if you own a home, I hope you will help me spread the word about HB2004, also known as Stable Homes for Oregon Families. Please make sure other women like me stay housed. Write or call your legislator and tell them why this matters. But go beyond that. Figure out where people are living when they lose their homes near you. Where do they go? Where do the women who suffer go? Who is profiting off their sorrow and pain?
I challenge you to follow the trail of money. See who is making money when a family loses their home. Look up how much money it is. Look up everything you need to know and do something about it. Challenge the people who kick women out to offer affordable housing and support rent control. We cannot continue to treat our poorest people like this. We cannot thrive as a society when we are hemorrhaging our young people who cannot afford to buy homes like this. Our elderly cannot simply be thrown into the streets because of profit margins. Limitless growth for the property management industry is not possible.
Our lawmakers work for us – remember that. Hold them accountable for what they do to the meekest of your peers.