Not many people can point to the exact cause of suddenly becoming homeless, much less put a number to it. For Tri-Nu Little, the number was 31.
That’s the number of days it took her rent to increase by $650, a more than 60 percent jump in monthly payments, made insurmountable by the building owner’s decision to stop accepting Section 8 housing assistance.
“I couldn’t afford to pay that rent. I was on unemployment. I couldn’t afford to even move,” said Little, a 38-year-old single mother who was living in East Oakland at the time. “It can happen to anybody. If you get laid off of your job, you could be here within a month.”
With no recourse, she packed up her furniture, put it in storage and moved to the uncertainty of home being wherever she and her 18-year-old daughter could find to lay their heads for the night. Most of the time it was at friends’ homes, but sometimes the pair would have to find a motel room. It’s a version of homelessness that, while not as extreme as sleeping on the streets full time, is no less stressful for anyone trying to keep or find a job, scrape together money for rent and somehow get a high-school-age daughter through her senior year.
Little and her daughter, Kei-Nu, now live in a four-unit apartment building in the same neighborhood as her former home that appears to have been unloved by the previous owner but that is being slowly restored by the current one. While her living room feels unfinished — one lamp sits on the floor, supposedly waiting for an end table to stand on — there’s no shortage of personal touches that say, “This is my home.”
But getting to this point was a six-month tug-of-war between good fortune and more setbacks.
“My cousin allowed me to stay at her house sometimes,” Little said. “I would ask if my daughter could stay at her friend’s house, and I would be sleeping in my car.”
She found a full-time job as a medical assistant for an urgent care clinic, but the stress, long hours and sporadic meals took their toll and she spent three days in the hospital. Her job became a lot less full-time.
The hardest part, Little said, was trying to find normalcy for Kei-Nu, who was forced to commute between temporary stays in Castro Valley and Hayward and school in Oakland.
“I think it was hard for her to adjust. It was her senior year, and we were trying to get her graduated,” Little said. “There was a lot of pressure for the both of us. That was my main focus.”
In June, Little found her new apartment, which she could afford with Section 8 assistance. It was still being renovated and she didn’t have a security deposit, but she didn’t care.
She recently recalled telling the owner, “I don’t have the money. If I did get someone to help me, would you want to take it?”
The owner said yes, but still needed some kind of security deposit or a way collect it per month as higher rent.
That’s when Little and Delia Ledezma, a housing services counselor with Catholic Charities of the East Bay, turned to The Chronicle’s Season of Sharing Fund. After checking out her story, the fund cut a check to the landlord for the deposit.
“She showed me a picture of her daughter and told me she was very proud of her,” Ledezma said. “She felt bad that she didn’t have a permanent place, at least a table where you can do your homework and a bed to sleep.”
The receipt for the deposit is still taped to the side of Little’s refrigerator, a daily reminder.
Other reminders fill the apartment, not just of the struggle, but of the achievement despite the odds — framed photos of Kei-Nu in a prom dress on one wall, and in a cap and gown on another. She now attends San Francisco City College, where she’s studying radiology.
“I’m more thankful I have somewhere to come to. I don’t take for granted the situation anymore,” she said. “There’s nothing like having your own place. Nothing like being able to come inside and close the door.”
Little is working a seasonal job at a San Francisco department store and plans on going back into medical work at the beginning of the year. The long-term goal, however, is to become a social worker.
“I think I would be able to help people. There are a lot of underserved people in the community here,” she said. “At some point, you need someone who’s actually been there before.”
Spud Hilton is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter and Instagram: @SpudHilton
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