Finally Finding Home
Through the Housing for Health program, Jesus received treatment for mental illness and found an apartment.
Shortly after immigrating from the Dominican Republic to the United States with his father, Jesus Cerda found himself homeless and alone at the age of 16.
Over the next decade, Cerda struggled on his own and began grappling with symptoms of mental illness. He stayed with relatives sporadically and even lived in a car for a week before moving into various shelters across New York City.
But thanks to the Housing for Health program at NYC Health + Hospitals, Cerda, now 27, has a home of his own, a studio apartment in Queens inside a former tuberculosis hospital that was converted into 200 apartments.
“When I moved here, I felt relieved,” Cerda said. “I felt like I gained something really good that I had to appreciate. I was happy and excited.”
Cerda is one of more than 1,000 patients served by the Housing for Health program. The initiative connects homeless patients to affordable homes to improve their health and wellbeing.
Since January 2020, over 800 patients have been placed in medical respite beds and over 400 patients have been placed in permanent housing.
Before moving into his apartment, Cerda lived in eight different shelters over a five-year period. While living at a shelter in Harlem, he was unable to sleep for a month due to constant noise from residents playing video games throughout the night.
Cerda’s sleep deprivation exacerbated his schizoaffective disorder, an illness he was previously diagnosed with that includes symptoms of schizophrenia and mood disorders such as depression or bipolar disorder.
“He was going through a lot of social stressors and was in the shelter and did not have a good support system,” said Dr. Kelania Jimenez, Cerda’s psychiatrist at NYC Health + Hospitals/Harlem.
Dr. Ryan Hashem, Division Chief of Behavioral Health at Harlem, likened Cerda’s condition to staying up too late at night and being startled by a noise but having that sensation consistently every day.
“Imagine that patient in a shelter in that stressful environment,” Dr. Hashem said. “For a patient in that demographic, it is almost impossible.”
Cerda felt distressed and started hearing voices and experiencing paranoia. He was then admitted to the Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program at Harlem where he was observed and given treatment. Today, Cerda manages his condition with medication and monthly visits to Dr. Jimenez
Around the same time, Cerda started working with the Housing Task Force of his insurance provider MetroPlusHealth. This team helps members of MetroPlusHealth who live in shelters, like Cerda, access housing and community resources with the goal of improving their quality of life and reducing ER visits and hospitalizations.
In Cerda’s case, the task force helped him through the process of securing his apartment, which he moved into in July 2022. Since then, the home has transformed his life.
“I am more relaxed mentally and that has brought me inner peace,” said Cerda, now several months into his apartment. “For what I’ve been through, I feel like a king. I feel good.”
Since moving in, Cerda has been making his apartment more like a home, buying new furniture, decorating, setting up a small studio, and enjoying simple everyday activities like being able to drink cold water and having the ability to just sit and relax.
“He’s so happy that he has his own space where he can study in quiet,” said Dr. Jimenez. “He feels safe there and he’s able to be independent.”
While living in the shelter, Cerda earned his associate’s degree in animation and graphic motion, an impressive feat since he wasn’t allowed to have a desk or chair. Today, his gaming chair has become one of his prized possessions.
“Jesus is achieving his goals and coming to outpatient appointments once a month like any other human being does for cholesterol,” said Dr. Hashem. “That’s the difference that housing has done for him, apart from what we did.”
Now with comfortable living arrangements, Cerda is pursuing his bachelor’s degree in studio art and hopes to get a job with a comic book company.
“I can cook my own food, I can wake up at any time, I can listen to music,” Cerda said. “I don’t have to worry about privacy. It’s just something I didn’t have.”
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