Rosemary Rodriguez was just 13 years old when her family was evicted from their apartment. The high school sophomore suddenly found herself crammed into a one-bedroom unit at a local shelter in Brooklyn, New York with her mother and three siblings. Now she's a high school graduate, and besides preparing for college, the formerly homeless teen Rosemary Rodriguez is providing policy recommendations to state legislators in hopes of helping other homeless teens escape the cycle of poverty.
"Society puts a label on you when you're homeless," 17-year-old Rodriguez tells Bustle. "Even if someone is homeless, they shouldn't be treated any differently."
Rodriguez, who once struggled to keep up in school, is now the recipient of the the 2017 Children’s Defense Fund of New York’s “Beat the Odds” college scholarship. The award is a $10,000 grant that funds the college education of teens who have overcome significant hardship and strive to become leaders in their community — which Rodriguez exhibited by serving as a mentor to homeless youth in Brooklyn.
“I started this work so that I could help other homeless teens avoid becoming involved in the criminal justice system,” Rodriguez says.
Rodriguez will begin studying criminal justice this fall at a community college in Corning, New York. She chose to pursue that career field specifically so that she can "make a difference in helping other families.” In Rodriguez's own experience, putting an end to domestic abuse situations before they lead to homelessness is key.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, domestic violence is the third leading cause of homelessness in the nation, and Rodriguez’s family was no exception. After her mother eventually decided to leave her father, whom she says was verbally and physically abusive, Rodriguez lived in a unit at Women In Need, a nonprofit that provides safe housing and resources for homeless women and their children throughout New York City, for two years. While living in the shelter, Rodriguez says she constantly faced discrimination because of the fact that she was homeless.
"I never in my life had been stopped by the cops," Rodriguez claims. "After I moved to the shelter, I would get stopped every week."
This kind of profiling can lead to insecurity, anger, and an increased chance of becoming entangled in the criminal justice system, according to a study by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. The study found that nearly 44 percent of homeless teens in the United States had stayed in a jail, prison, or juvenile detention center in 2011, and nearly 78 percent had at least one interaction with the police.
All of these other families were experiencing what we were going through.
In high school, Rodriguez wanted to do more to end the cycle of homelessness and criminal justice involvement, and to be a voice of change for the other roughly 23,000 homeless youth in New York City. Influencing policy and studying so that she can become involved in the criminal justice system itself seemed to be the answer.
"Seeing that there were other families [in the shelter] as well ... it kind of took a mental toll on me," Rodriguez says. "All of these other families were experiencing what we were going through. It made me think a lot about my life and all of the other situations that are going on."
As a high school junior, Rodriguez began an internship with the Youth Justice Board at the Center for Court Innovation, where she created policy recommendations that would help homeless youth in New York and mentored homeless teens who were at risk of entering the criminal justice system.
In her work with the Youth Justice Board, Rodriguez held focus groups with local teens to determine what resources they most needed, spoke with local policymakers about improving access to affordable housing, and helped publish a 60-page report, titled "Homeless Not Hopeless," that outlined policy recommendations for homeless youth in New York City.
Rodriguez's family moved out of the shelter and into an apartment in Brooklyn in 2016, and she plans to continue advocating for teens experiencing homelessness and offering them advice from her own personal challenges.
"Each of the teens I interacted with were very different, and all of their stories were unique," Rodriguez says. "Each of them had something that stood out to me and I could relate to."
As a "Beat the Odds" scholarship recipient, Rodriguez continues to serve as a role model for her siblings and homeless teens around the city. She hopes to eventually become an investigator who profiles criminals for the FBI so that she can ensure that no child endures what she endured, and no child has to experience what life is like without a home.
"I will continue to beat the odds," Rodriguez says. "I have faced so many challenges in my life. But I will move on with my head held high."