Updated: Mar 2, 2021
How do you go home during a pandemic when you don’t have one?
By Elysa Caso-McHugh
The date was January 3, 2020. I grabbed my suitcases, brought them downstairs, and took a final walk through my parents’ house, petting and saying goodbye to my cats, who didn’t understand that it would be the last time I was going to see them for a very long time. I woke up my sister and asked her to drive me to the bus stop, where I said goodbye, assuring her that I would visit her at school in a couple of weeks.
Getting off the bus at Port Authority filled me to the brim with complex feelings I didn’t have the capacity to process yet. All I knew was that I had to successfully travel from Times Square to Brooklyn with my luggage. If I could keep my mind focused on that task and only that task, nothing else would overwhelm me.
These feelings were a result of my decision to leave home for good. My first Thanksgiving as a college student and a short stint at home during Winter Break made my situation clearer to me than it was while I was in high school: I was not welcome at home. Every other day, my dad vowed that if I couldn’t adhere to his strict yet confusing guidelines for behavior, he would kick me out, and I would have to find somewhere else to live. With the slightest shift in tone, my parents would tell me that I had “ruined the day already.” Many times they would get angry with me for things I didn’t do, like leaving the water running in the bathtub or staining the kitchen counter with a wine glass. They “couldn’t look at me,” they said, even when I tried to explain my behavior. I have PTSD, and it is deeply frustrating to be scolded for struggling to emotionally regulate myself. I cannot suddenly force myself to become neurotypical to fit their standard. It was not until after I left their home that I finally gave myself the space to heal properly for the first time.
Instead of gambling my chances at homelessness, I left for Brooklyn to stay with Barnard alumnae, who were generous enough to offer me space during Winter Break. As a student receiving no financial support from my parents, I was unable to afford the $450 fee Barnard would have charged me to stay in the dorms. I thought, “If I can just make it through winter break and summer break every year and find a place to stay, I will be able to survive college without returning home.” In February, I began applying to internships, talking with older students about how they found summer housing, and building a budget to save as much money as I could.
Illustration by Sahra Denner
Then, of course, the pandemic came. I feared what would happen if coronavirus impacted our housing, and I tried to put the thought off for as long as I could until the fateful email arrived in my inbox: Classes were canceled for the first two days the week before Spring Break, primarily so faculty and administrators could begin organizing for online ones. It was the beginning of the end of my stay at Barnard for the foreseeable future. Still, I held out hope that I would be able to stand my ground and stay in campus housing without any fuss, despite Harvard and MIT kicking their students out in a less densely populated city.
More emails followed. First, classes would remain online for a few weeks after Spring Break. A few days later, we were slated to Zoom for the remainder of the semester. My friend and I sighed, wondering how Barnard would try to force us out of their dorms: Directly? Or by making low-income and queer students feel as though we have to leave, guilting us into going somewhere unsafe instead of protecting us?
On top of the challenges of having grown up in a toxic household since being adopted at age 10, I am a queer person figuring out my gender identity for the first time in my life. Going back to a place where gay people are constantly dismissed and mocked, where I would consistently be misgendered, was not safe. Yet another reason not to give in and return home.
Staying in a city with the most COVID-19 cases in the country felt safer to me than going back there. The psychological trauma of returning home could do me far more damage than the virus. When Barnard sent another, more hostile email urging us to leave, I called my sister, an MIT student. She shared similar sentiments: These schools’ utter dismissal of the challenges that low-income and queer students face suggests that they won’t be sensitive to us when we need extra support. This was made even clearer by the fact that it took me an entire month to get aid from Barnard to survive this semester, while many students still haven’t received a dime from a school that has required them to leave without support.
I decided not to gamble on the chance of Barnard eventually kicking us out. A friend connected me to a family in Harlem who invited me to stay at their apartment, and that’s where I’ve spent the past month of quarantine. I am deeply grateful for the space I have, but being away from my siblings has been very difficult. My sister is in New England with fellow floormates, and my brother, still in high school, is at home with my parents. I worry for his safety every day.
I feel left out each time students make jokes or memes about being with family—I am all alone here. I’m separated from my siblings and my campus community, but it is better for my survival to be in limbo right now. I am sticking to the decision I made in January.
The decision not to return home at 18 years old because of your queer identity is a difficult one, and the pandemic has exacerbated the challenge of continually recomitting to it. I had to fundraise and hunt for an apartment this summer to avoid ending up at home. This time and energy would have been better spent on schoolwork, and the reality that many of my classmates were able to finish their semester in peace highlights gross inequalities. Fighting for my right to exist off the street is something I knew I would have to do each winter and summer during college, but I didn’t expect it to become so difficult so quickly.
nI am making plans and taking steps to ensure that I will be safe for the next few months at a time, and playing it by ear as situations change. I can only plan so far into the future. For now, I’ll just keep moving forward, staying hopeful that our fights through quarantine will be well worth it when the day finally comes to return to campus.