Through NYC Health + Hospitals, Jesus received treatment for mental illness and found an apartment through the Housing for Health program.
Shortly after immigrating to the United States from the Dominican Republic 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 to struggle with symptoms of mental illness. He stayed sporadically with family 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 has been converted into 200 apartments.
“When I moved here, I felt relieved,” Cerda said. I felt that I got something very good that I should 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 with affordable homes to improve their health and well-being.
Since January 2020, more than 800 patients have been placed in medical respite beds and more than 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 worsened his schizoaffective disorder, a disease he was previously diagnosed with that includes symptoms of schizophrenia and mood disorders such as depression or bipolar disorder.
“He went through a lot of social stressors and was in the shelter and didn’t have a good support system,” says 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 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,” said Dr. Hashem said. “For a patient in that demographic, it’s almost impossible.”
Cerda felt distressed and began to hear voices and experience 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 began working with the Housing Task Force of its insurance provider MetroPlusHealth. This team helps MetroPlusHealth members living 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 house has changed his life.
“I’m more relaxed mentally and it’s brought me inner peace,” said Cerda, now a few months into his apartment. “For what I’ve been through, I feel like a king. I feel good.”
Since moving in, Cerda has made his apartment more like a home, bought new furniture, decorated, set up a small studio, and enjoys simple everyday activities like being able to drink cold water and having the ability to just sit and relax.
“He is so happy that he has his own space where he can study in silence,” Dr. Jimenez said. “He feels safe there and he can be independent.”
While living in the shelter, Cerda earned his associate’s degree in animation and motion graphics, an impressive feat since he is not allowed a desk or chair. Today, his play chair has become one of his prized possessions.
“Jesus achieves his goals and comes to outpatient appointments once a month like any other person does for cholesterol,” said Dr. Hashem said. “That’s the difference housing made for him, apart from what we did.”
Now with comfortable living arrangements, Cerda is studying for his bachelor’s degree in studio art and hopes to land a job at a comics company.
“I can cook my own food, I can wake up anytime, I can listen to music,” Cerda said. “I don’t have to worry about privacy. It’s just something I didn’t have.”