“My dream at that moment was to have a pillow, to have a restroom that worked, because I remember visiting my counselor’s house, and I went to use her restroom and I could flush the toilet. I could just turn on the faucet and it's hot water.”
Ismael Chamu had been homeless his entire life. His family moved around a lot, living in garages, RVs or shared living rooms with other families, separated by nothing more than a curtain. His father took whatever work he could find. Ismael was forced to adapt, and avoided getting close with his classmates, because he knew he’d just be sad when he inevitably had to move again and leave his friends.
In spite of his hardship, or perhaps because of it, Ismael was a really good student. He found he could disappear into his schoolwork, hyper focus and escape from the chaos of his life.
“If all you know is chaos or pain, and school or that history class – for example, for me, I loved history – was the only outlet of just being able to not feel pain or sadness, I could like escape everything from my life and just hyper focus on that and just learn about that,” Ismael says in this episode.
Ismael and his mom at his graduation
He had a 4.0 GPA, and his counselor encouraged him to dream beyond the life he’d always known. So he started applying to colleges, and in the fall of 2014, he began his freshman year at the University of California, Berkeley. He ended up majoring in sociology, and learned about the social forces behind his own family’s homelessness. He became an advocate for affordable housing, even as he still struggled to find a permanent place to live.
During Ismael’s senior year, he and his siblings lost their housing – an RV parked on some guy’s front yard – very suddenly. He was homeless again. But when a journalist wrote about his story, he went viral. Ismael’s friends started a GoFundMe, and someone offered to let his family rent out their home at an affordable rate that they could pay with the money brought in from the donation campaign.
Things were starting to look up after so many years of hardship. But for the Chamus, finally having permanent housing presented a whole new set of problems.
“How do you respond to safety finally for once?” Ismael says.
Ismael posing with one of his fish tanks
To hear how they learned to cope with the PTSD of chronic homelessness and feel at home in their own space, listen to “Moving Out Of The Living Room” now.
Learn more about the host of Home. Made., award winning journalist Stephanie Foo on our host page.
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STEPHANIE FOO: Back in 2018, Ismael Chamu and his family rolled up to a cute, pale yellow house in a peaceful suburb of Berkeley, California. There were six of them – mom, dad and four kids, including Ismael. They jumped out, grabbed their few bags, and walked into their new home. Ismael couldn't believe it. He ran up the stairs to his bedroom. Looked out the window and saw neighbors walking past green trees and flowers. He’d dreamed about this his whole life. About his family living in a house, and especially with everyone having their own bedroom. But later that night, no one actually slept in their rooms.
ISMAEL CHAMU: And so I remember in the living room, we put down, like, little cushions on the floor. And that's where we laid down. And the reason why is that my family, we felt like, “I'm only here for a night, so I'm just going to lay down on the living room floor, and then I'm ready to leave tomorrow.”
STEPHANIE FOO: But Ismael and his family weren’t leaving tomorrow. Or the day after that. Still, the family lay huddled, holding tightly onto each other.
ISMAEL CHAMU: But it wasn't cold. It wasn't anything like that, but I felt so strange. It felt like a moment of silence in between chaos.
STEPHANIE FOO: Until that night, Ismael had spent his whole life homeless. He didn’t know what it meant to live in a house.
ISMAEL CHAMU: And it was a very strange feeling to feel.
STEPHANIE FOO: Safe and warm.
ISMAEL CHAMU: Safe and warm finally but mysteriously too safe and too warm. My body, my mind don't know how to respond to that. How do you respond to safety finally for once?
STEPHANIE FOO: This is Home. Made., an original podcast by Rocket Mortgage® about the meaning of homes and what we can learn about ourselves in them. I’m Stephanie Foo.
STEPHANIE FOO: How would you define the word home?
ISMAEL CHAMU: The word home. I would define that as a place you feel safe and warm.
STEPHANIE FOO: How would you describe you and your family's housing situation when you were growing up?
ISMAEL CHAMU: Chaotic. I would say there was never a home.
STEPHANIE FOO: Ismael says he was homeless before he was even born. His parents each came to America from Mexico as teenagers, without their families. His father was a migrant worker, one of 15 million in America. He spoke little English and took whatever work he could find. In apple orchards, tree farms, on construction sites. He often earned only $5 an hour. Eventually, Ismael’s parents married and had four kids. They lived in one temporary space after another, often camped out in a single living room with three other families, each separated by a flimsy curtain. What little they made was spent on rent and food. Ismael remembers one Christmas when the family was living in their van. His younger siblings were excited about Christmas, but his father hadn’t been paid yet.
ISMAEL CHAMU: We were able to put together $12, and for Christmas we had McChickens from McDonald's and we had French fries. And so each of these Christmases was always, food was always absent. It was always just us and us in very desperate, sad situations. It’s just heavy, hard to think about like, that was my Christmases.
STEPHANIE FOO: Ismael also remembers moving constantly, usually without warning. The first time he was sitting in class playing with his friends when a teacher walked in and told him he was leaving. A few minutes later he was in a car headed across the country.
ISMAEL CHAMU: I felt, like, very surprised, very in awe, almost no reaction, no emotional reaction. You're just like—
STEPHANIE FOO: In shock.
ISMAEL CHAMU: You're just in shock. Right. You're just like, "Oh, OK. I don't know what ..." What do you do? How are you supposed to feel this way?
STEPHANIE FOO: Ismael attended five different elementary schools, three middle schools and five high schools in California and the Carolinas. And with each move, he became more hardened, more used to this lifestyle. He learned to cope. He told classmates his father was in the army, and that’s why they moved a lot. He was careful not to make close friends to avoid getting sad when he moved again. Ismael lived in RVs, random garages, and sometimes cars. But it was those shared living rooms that were the worst. There were often drunk men living behind those curtains, which was scary to Ismael.
ISMAEL CHAMU: Scared of what? I didn't know at that time. But now if I can put words to it, I was afraid of the potential sexual violence against my sisters or against my mom. I was afraid of someone intoxicated doing physical violence against us or against myself. And this is me as a second grader. Couldn't put it into words, but I could feel it. I could sense it. That sounds pretty, pretty intense, but that's the role we were always playing of just trying to be protective and trying to be the adult.
STEPHANIE FOO: You're the third parent, you had to grow up really fast.
ISMAEL CHAMU: The third parent. Absolutely.
STEPHANIE FOO: This was Ismael’s routine for much of high school in Hayward, California: Get up at 4 a.m. Load weed whackers, rakes and mowers into a van. Do lawn work with his brother and father in the early morning light. Then, rush to school for a 6:30 a.m. AP bio. Mow lawns again after school. In the evening, go to Starbucks to study because that’s where he could get internet. Sleep at 1 a.m., then wake up at 4 a.m. to mow lawns again. He assumed that life would always be like this, but at school a counselor named Ms. Ruiz helped him think otherwise. She dared him to dream.
STEPHANIE FOO: And what was, like, the big dream back then?
ISMAEL CHAMU: You know, this is really funny that you mentioned this because there's this really cool rapper. His name is Kimba. And in one of his songs called Captain Planet, he says that each time someone asks other kids, “What are your dreams?” kids describe a sports car, a luxury house. But when we ask people who are poor “What's your dream?” you describe things like running water, a pillow and Corn Pops without roaches in it, which is essentially a cereal without cockroaches in it. Just that resonates with me so much. And so to answer your question for me, my dream at that moment was to have a pillow, to have a restroom that worked, because I remember visiting my counselor’s house and I went to use her restroom and I could flush the toilet. I could turn, I could just turn on the faucet and it's hot water. What the hell is that? Right?
STEPHANIE FOO: But Ms. Ruiz told him to dream bigger. She told him something no one had ever said to him: you could go to college. Because, despite his brutally demanding life, Ismael had a 4.0 GPA.
ISMAEL CHAMU: A lot of my, just doing great in different academic courses and all these things was because those were the few moments where I could hyper focus on things because everything else was chaotic. If all you know is chaos or pain and school or that history class – for example, for me, I loved history – was the only outlet of just being able to not feel pain or sadness. I could, like, escape everything from my life and just hyper focus on that and just learn about that.
STEPHANIE FOO: So Ms. Ruiz helped Ismael apply to colleges. At first, he felt guilty about it. Him leaving would mean less money for his family. But then, in senior year, Ismael’s friends started talking about going to this college, going to that college, and he decided he didn’t want to mow lawns for the rest of his life.
ISMAEL CHAMU: I started getting a feeling of me why not? Why not me? Why should I continue being the same way that I am? And so college became the place where I was like, you know what, I think I can get out of here.
STEPHANIE FOO: And because Ismael was an excellent student, he got in everywhere. Competitive schools like UC Davis. Irvine. Santa Cruz. And Berkeley. Ismael, a homeless kid who was only allowed to sleep 3 hours a night, got into one of the best colleges in the world.
ISMAEL CHAMU: That is when I started processing like, oh shoot, I actually did something. Right. I did something big.
STEPHANIE FOO: Berkeley was just half an hour from where his family was living. And so Ismael started in the fall of 2014. His dad dropped him off with two trash bags full of all his belongings, and he walked through campus to his dorm.
ISMAEL CHAMU: Big buildings, classical Roman Greek architecture, and here I am. All I've known was the Starbucks down the street, my RV, this dirt road. And so I was terrified. I was really scared, but to me, it was really, really exciting. I'm like, wow, there's a bed here. It's warm. I can actually stand in my shower and turn this on. That's crazy. I felt like the first moment you enter into a really nice hotel. And you're like, wow, look at this. Look at that.
STEPHANIE FOO: Ismael's roommate was already in his dorm room when he arrived – Michel, a rich kid from Boston whose dad was a lawyer. Ismael says the first things he noticed were Michel's clean white duvet, soft pillows, and towels. Everything he didn’t have. And he remembers feeling uncomfortable, embarrassed of where he had come from. But Michel was cool, and so were some of the other kids in the dorm. They helped him register for classes, something he didn’t know he needed to do before he got there. And one of his new friends gave him a pillow. Ismael had never had a pillow before. He’d only slept on rolled up towels. So at first he tried to refuse it.
ISMAEL CHAMU: And my friend was like, no, take this pillow. And so I took the pillow and later on in the evening, I wrapped my pillow with the towels and I finally laid my head on it and to feel such softness. I think people underestimate the first sensation of, of laying your head on a pillow. I don't think people even remember that, but for me actually finally feeling that was insane. I was like, wow, this is so comfortable. Yeah, it had a towel wrapped around it, but it was great. It was awesome.
STEPHANIE FOO: Over the next several months, campus started to feel more comfortable. But Ismael says he felt guilty on a constant basis, thinking about his family. Any extra money he got from scholarships and student loans he sent to his parents. In class he studied economics, slowly made friends and got by working odd jobs. But at Berkeley, dorms are for freshman year only. The next fall, Ismael had to find somewhere else to live. He didn’t get into student co-op housing. So when sophomore year started, Ismael was a student at one of America’s top schools, but he was also homeless, again. He bounced around: couch surfing, crashing in abandoned warehouses and spending the odd night in a library. Ismael also bounced around majors and wound up in sociology, where he learned about some of the reasons behind his family’s homelessness, their poverty. He called it an “awakening.”
ISMAEL CHAMU: I knew there's people who would screw my dad over and not pay my dad. I also knew that whenever we’d go mow lawns and do landscaping work, it would be at people who had really nice house in the suburbs. And why was I not living in the suburb? I was familiar with these things. I just didn't understand the words or the principles or the theories connecting all of this. Once I was able to connect those two things I was finally like, oh, this makes sense. I shouldn't be embarrassed about my dad or about my story. It's not something to be ashamed of for being poor.
STEPHANIE FOO: Ismael finally felt empowered. He started advocating for affordable housing. And he realized he wasn’t the only homeless student. A recent survey found that 5% of all University of California students were experiencing some form of housing insecurity. And Ismael says he met many people, even a couple of instructors at UC Berkeley, who were living in cars and abandoned buildings. By 2018, Ismael’s senior year, he and his siblings were living in an old RV on some guy’s front yard. And then, the town of Hayward outlawed residential trailers and the RV owner evicted them with little notice. Yet another abrupt move for Ismael – but this time something different happened. A while before, Ismael and other activists had been protesting the rising cost of student housing in Sacramento. During the protest, he met a journalist from the LA Times. They stayed in touch, and when Ismael lost the rental, he called the journalist, who wrote a story about him. A lot of people read that story. And when Ismael’s friend started a GoFundMe for him, it went viral. Within 15 minutes of starting the campaign, there was five thousand dollars in the account. Ismael called his friend.
ISMAEL CHAMU: I'm like, "Hey, like that's a lot of money. I think we're good now," And he's like, “No, are you kidding? I literally just set it up. No, we're going to keep it there,” and I'm like, that's ridiculous, what are you talking about? No, that's insane. In the Latino community, you don't ask for help. You don't get donations. That is a character defect if someone helps you or gives you something. They're like, “No, no, tell people take the money back,” And I told my mom and dad, “No, this is good. We're going to use this money to help us find a place to live.”
STEPHANIE FOO: More money poured in.
ISMAEL CHAMU: Like $500. $200.
STEPHANIE FOO: One person threw in 20k. And, eventually, the campaign reached $100,000.
ISMAEL CHAMU: That was just insane. I just felt like my skin reacting, like just little prickly—
STEPHANIE FOO: Goosebumps.
ISMAEL CHAMU: Goosebumps and everything. Yeah, and so like that was one of the things where I realized that there are kind people out here in the world.
STEPHANIE FOO: Ismael’s parents were still freaked out, but they came around when Ismael suggested they buy a new car, which they really wanted. And then one of the GoFundMe donors offered to rent them her late father’s house at an affordable price. A furnished yellow house in Poet’s Corner, a middle class suburb of Berkeley. This was the end of the Chamu family’s homelessness. The money guaranteed them rent, necessities and even some left over for Ismael’s siblings’ college costs. It was a chance to put down real roots. Build a life. But the transition to housing was much more difficult than Ismael expected. Months after they moved in, there were no photos on the wall, no tchotchkes on shelves. They didn’t even have trash cans for the kitchen. The home that Ismael’s family rented had four bedrooms. More than enough room for everyone to spread out. But instead they slept together on the living room floor. Not just for the first and second night. For weeks.
ISMAEL CHAMU: We're all sleeping very close together and then my sister's like, I'm going to use the restroom. And then my mom's like, oh, I'm coming with you. And this is inside our house. Right. That's something you would do, I don't know, at the movie theater, like, oh, I'll come with you. Right. But in our house we were now following one another to the restroom because even though we were safe, even though this home was warm, we still didn't know how to respond to that.
STEPHANIE FOO: All of the years of fear associated with his homelessness had given Ismael PTSD.
STEPHANIE FOO: So can you tell me just kind of like, how did it feel in your body when you were feeling that fear?
ISMAEL CHAMU: It's almost always as if you're almost always out of breath and I always feel very unsure, very, very on edge. Almost like when you wake up from a nightmare but that is your life on a consistent basis, very anxious. And so I started noticing that when I consumed alcohol, that would go away. I would relax. I would calm down. I wouldn't be paranoid anymore. I could finally look at items around my house and be, "Whoa, look at this.” I could lay down on my couch and feel the cushion of my couch when I was intoxicated. I could just—
STEPHANIE FOO: It was the only time that you could feel present?
ISMAEL CHAMU: Exactly, and that was something I wouldn't be feeling when I was sober, because I would consistently be on edge about everything.
STEPHANIE FOO: When you’re in active danger, your brain doesn’t always have the resources to feel anxious, sad or angry about the things you’re going through. You just have to concentrate on surviving. So, sometimes it’s when you’re safe, when you have the privilege of time and space to think about things that the grief and fear really hits. So even though Ismael graduated from Berkeley, scored a great contract job at Facebook and was otherwise totally stable in his life, his trauma was hitting harder than ever. His brain and body couldn’t believe he was finally safe. He was anxious. And his drinking increased.
ISMAEL CHAMU: I remember one of my best friends, still my best friend to this day, pulled me aside. I remember it was a happy hour event and I got really drunk that night and then he says, "Hey, Ish, I've noticed that you've been getting really drunk a lot when we hang out as a group. Is everything OK?” That was the first time when I started realizing that I have this really good job, but I could mess up. And that could potentially jeopardize my family's well-being, because I'm taking care of my family right now. I'm paying the rent, I'm doing the bills. That was very difficult for me to finally thinking to myself, no, I need to find help.
STEPHANIE FOO: Ismael started therapy during the pandemic, on the phone, and his therapist started teaching him about PTSD and how it causes lingering fear.
STEPHANIE FOO: What was it that you learned from therapy that helped you deal with that fear?
ISMAEL CHAMU: I started seeing myself not as a bad person, but as someone who still has some learning to do, and also learning how to feel sad, how to feel happy. And there's nothing wrong with being honest with those things, and that's something I never knew growing up. It was wrong to tell my parents that I was sad, for some reason. "Why are you sad?" And I would be, “I don't know.” And my mom or my dad would be, "There's nothing for you to be sad about." But now I can be, "I feel sad," and not be scared about saying those things.
STEPHANIE FOO: When you say that she helped you feel like you weren't a bad person, you mean specifically that you weren't a bad person for feeling anxious or sad?
ISMAEL CHAMU: Yes, I wasn’t also a bad person for having used alcohol to feel those feelings. Also, that whenever I do lie, it wasn't because of ill intention, it was because I'm protecting myself. I’m protecting myself from further abuse.
STEPHANIE FOO: Therapy helped. So did volunteering at the Women’s Building in San Francisco. It offers a bunch of services to the homeless. Ismael prepared tax returns for people. But he wasn’t just helping them get back money. He was buying them time.
ISMAEL CHAMU: Like I wish, for example, when I was being evicted, that I had an extra month, that I had an extra week, that I had an extra day to prepare for it, to think about it, to find somewhere else to go to. I had this, this one client who, she came in, single mother. And she was very desperate because she was behind on rent and I was able to get her $2,500 in a tax refund. Her eyes were, like, tearing up. And she said, “Thank you so much, mijo. Like I can, I can pay rent for my next 2 months. You don't understand how worried I was that I didn't have enough money for my children.” And so that was very touching.
STEPHANIE FOO: Sometimes when we start to change, we don’t see it right away. It can take someone else pointing it out. Or it can happen when we are helping someone else go through something similar.
ISMAEL CHAMU: So essentially something that's really helped me out was that I realized now that I'm on the other side of the table, I'm no longer the one quote-unquote receiving aid or help or out of desperation, but I'm the one providing it. And so it helps me keep in check mentally that there's nothing to be afraid of anymore.
STEPHANIE FOO: Ismael continued to work on himself. He says drinking stopped being a problem. He started cycling, and exercise helped with the PTSD. He volunteered when he could. And jobs kept coming in. After Facebook, he started working for Google.
STEPHANIE FOO: All of this self-care, this recovery was necessary for Ismael to feel at home in that house. But he wasn’t the only one who needed to feel at home. So Ismael realized it was up to him to break the ice. As a young kid, he used to dream about going to Walmart and bringing home a goldfish in a fish tank. It was something he thought any kid in a stable home would do. So Ismael went to a pet store and bought a Betta fish. Bright purple, pink, and blue like a starry night sky. And he called it Nebula. He also bought a 10-gallon fish tank.
ISMAEL CHAMU: I remember my mom and my dad telling me, like, “Oh, why are you getting that? It's going to be hard to move it when we move.” And I'm like, “We're not going anywhere. We're going to stay here and I'm going to make this my space.”
STEPHANIE FOO: Soon after, his siblings and parents started taking steps of their own. His mother bought one of those heavy, old-timey sewing machines and created a sewing corner in the living room. His dad planted little cacti around the house and an apple tree outside. He is also taking English lessons so he can apply for better jobs. Both of Ismael’s parents are in therapy. And he says they are doing so much better.
ISMAEL CHAMU: So, here we are. My mom has a bunch of plants on the window, where she has her spices and her little cups. She's made this space her own, as well.
STEPHANIE FOO: His brother and sisters started decorating their rooms. More importantly, all three are going to college. Ismael’s youngest sister Jocelyn followed him to Berkeley on a scholarship to study molecular biology.
ISMAEL CHAMU: We're here in my living room. I have one, two, three, four fish tanks, with plants growing out of them and just a lot of fish, little aquatic life going on.
STEPHANIE FOO: Ismael now has 13 fish tanks scattered around the house, six pillows on his bed and he’s covered his bedroom walls in art.
ISMAEL CHAMU: I think, something that really helps me feel safe here, is the corner of my room, by my fish tank and my working station. Essentially, because I have lots of little things. For example, these seashells I got in New Orleans. Different earrings, little books I've collected throughout time. Even things that I've had when I was homeless. The past is no longer something that to be scared of or afraid of or considered bad, but rather as a mosaic of different things that have come together to create this bigger painting. Every time I look at my wall, I see different moments. I can see a prayer my mom wrote. I can see a painting that someone painted before me. I can see a love letter from a former lover. I can see different things that have come together to create what it is now, which is my mosaic, my life now. And I don't want it to be any different. It means that I am safe, I am warm and I am not alone. I have my family, I have my friends. I have people around me who love me and people that I love.
STEPHANIE FOO: You’ve been listening to Home. Made. by Rocket Mortgage. My name is Stephanie Foo. You can reach us at rocketmortgage.com/homemade. Thanks for listening.
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