Joshua’s Story

I grew up upstate New York in a town called Ellenville. It was me, my parents, and three other siblings that I grew up with. [We were a] very low-income family, my mom was a volunteer crisis worker. My father was a volunteer firefighter and a factory worker. So we didn’t have much and we moved around a lot. 

There’s one point in time I remember living in a shelter and having to go to school just to shower and change clothes in the nurse’s office just so I [could] be clean and go to class.

I wasn’t raised by my biological family. I was given up at 18 months, and I’ve been with my [adopted] mom and dad since I was 18 months. It was their choice to take me in.

Not every child has the option to be chosen and the fact that they already had two kids and they were willing to take another one just speaks volumes. 

I found out about my biological parents when I was eight. From there, I just really started acting out. At 13 I started drinking and partying and from there it got bad. The group homes came first, their job was to do family counseling to try to restore the issue.

I found my voice in the group homes. I was in a room full of other boys, which I’ve never been able to really relate to, and had to share a room with people I didn’t know. I met my first gang member friend and learned the power that I had in my voice and empathy. I’ll never forget when he was having an episode, he was really angry and flipping out. The staff was scared and just let him do it. They didn’t want anybody around him, but me and him already established a relationship, so I just walked up to him and said, “hey, let’s talk about it”. And from that moment on, I felt empowered in my voice to say, I have the ability to convince, whatever the case may be.

After the group homes, I finally got out and started acting right. I moved back in with my family, I was 15 or 16. I was never home though, there wasn’t any space for me. I was running away, going to my friend’s house. I was never comfortable for whatever reason, to this day I don’t understand. 

I lived with my neighbor for some time and then ended up moving in with my uncle. My uncle has been in my life since I was a kid. His wife passed away in 2000 due to HIV complications. That was a hard one because I was so close to her. 

Everywhere I went, people [who housed me received money from social services]. When I was living with [my neighbor], she gave it to me or she took me shopping to go get what I needed. That wasn’t the case with my uncle, he took me in for the money. I stayed there probably a year or so and then ended up leaving and I moved in with my partner at the time. 

I thought it was what I wanted it to be, but it wasn’t at all. There were arguments. Every other weekend I was being thrown out with nowhere to go. I’d wander the streets or knock on a friend’s door. I was young and impressionable so, of course, I’d go back. And then, what really did it, was when the physical abuse started.

Again, I had to find somewhere else to live and I ended up moving down the street from where I was.

When I reflect back, I realize that is a lot for a person to move around so much. I am only 38 and have moved around the majority of my life. At what point do you sit still? I actually crave stability now, I need to be somewhere longer because if I get up and move or go somewhere else, it just messes with everything.

That’s why I was grateful that I was able to stay [in Santa Cruz] for three years because it gave me the stability I needed. I got back on my feet and got to know who I was again, but I never actually dealt with it. I kind of just moved on. Which is the way I always chose to do, just move on. “Oh, I was homeless?” Let’s move on. “Oh, I was abused?” Let’s just move on. I just wasn’t able to mentally deal with it because I was trying to survive and trying to find a place to live the majority of my time. When do I have time to process my emotions and feelings and my trauma?

I carried all that with me until I moved to New York. Then I got sick. I got so sick that I wasn’t able to move or eat. I had over a hundred fever, I was throwing up everything possible. I found out in December that I was HIV positive. I didn’t know who, what, where, what was going on. I just knew it attacked my body and it attacked it hard. 

A year later I got counseling and I stayed in counseling for the year and really dealt and worked through it. I had built a community and the support system and through that, I got comfortable speaking about it and living with it. The family that I built, my chosen family, was very supportive. They were from older generations, in their 40s or so, and lived through it when it was really bad. Having those types of people around me [made me] realize that they fought through it, and lived it, and they’re standing witnesses, and they were so supportive when I needed them. It was extremely helpful. 

It took me a while to overcome due to guilt and shame. I was extremely hard on myself because  I thought I should have known better due to previous knowledge I had after my cousin passed at 14 due to HIV. There were also suicide attempts, of course, because at the time I felt less than and alone.  

I ended up moving to Texas and going back to church, which I [had] stayed away from for a very long time. After I came ‘out’, I was told I was going to hell. But this [church] was supposed to be an affirming one, so I went back and later I met my spouse. Fast forward a bit, and we’ve been involved in the church for a while and I started an HIV ministry in this church.

We moved out to California with his company. As much as I loved Santa Cruz, the bigger struggle is the cost of living. Everywhere is expensive, but out here is different. Fortunately enough for us, we were able to cover it at that particular time. But then he had his first mental breakdown and ended up losing his job. 

It blew me away. It launched me into doing research with NAMI and mental health resources, mental health and housing. So that was a very big concern, because I was like, “okay, here we go again, we’re about to lose housing.” I called NAMI looking for an advocate that [could] help me because I’m working full time, I’m paying the bills, and I’m monitoring him. 

I was already mentally prepared to move again because of everything that was happening. I didn’t qualify for any help with my one person income to support two people. 

I started going into this overwhelmed mode, I couldn’t stop sleeping, I had trouble eating. I was drinking a lot more just because of it. I was trying to find some way to actually deal with this. I didn’t know what the next steps were. I didn’t know where we were going. I didn’t know what they were going to do. I didn’t know if the Sheriff was going to knock on the door and say, you have to be out in five days. The fear started overwhelming me. My main thing was, my stuff’s going to be on the curb. I’m going to lose everything. I’m going to be homeless.

When we signed the lease in Concord, it felt like a huge weight was lifted. I felt peace because I was like, okay, I have a roof over my head. My stuff is going to go somewhere safe. I’m not losing anything.

I remember sleeping on the subway in New York and it was cold. I remember falling asleep in parks until the daytime so I’m able to go to my next meeting or to whoever was serving breakfast or food at that particular time. I remember walking around with the other homeless people just talking and meeting new people until I found somewhere to stay or found food or found whatever I needed at that particular time. 

It is all of this that encourages me to be a voice and really advocate because some people have been defeated so much they don’t want to step up and I remember feeling that. I remember always feeling defeated. It’s just the worst feeling ever. I think out of everything, hope is the one thing I don’t wanna lose. You lose yourself when you’re stressed about survival. Every experience I’ve been through in my life, I try to take it, mold it, and reshape it so I can give back.

The people are what make this town. I’ve met genuine, unique, and just amazing people in Santa Cruz. I just really hope that the culture remains the same, the price of living goes down, and employment goes up. My biggest hope is there’s more resources for people who want them.

This story was collected in October 2023 by Andrea Feltz, Community Conversations Program Manager