An Unhoused High Schooler’s New Nest

Each of us has navigated this pandemic the best way we know how. Viruses by definition are unpredictable, and fresh data and circumstances have thrown us into confusion more than once.

Each of our pandemic experiences are unique. Camilo is a 16 year old who lives in New York City with his mother and two siblings in a shelter with no Internet. May his account of personal reconciliation and resilience be an inspiration.

Camilo R. (Illustration by João Fazenda for the New Yorker)

As Told To: An Unhoused High Schooler’s New Nest
By Zach Helfand

A year ago, we talked with a fifteen-year-old named Camilo, who lived with his mother and two siblings in a shelter with no Internet. The family shared one unreliable laptop and one cell phone. When they spent a night at the home of friends, to use their Wi-Fi, the shelter kicked them out. Last week, Camilo brought us up to date.

We still don’t have Wi-Fi, but I have a school iPad that has service. Last spring, we moved to a shelter on the Lower East Side. I didn’t like it because I had to share a room, and I need my own space. But I liked the vibe. It was a good neighborhood, next to East River Park. I had a place to jog. I had a place to feed the birds.

In July, I hadn’t seen anybody in so long, so I took the Staten Island Ferry with one of my old friends from the Bronx. In Battery Park, a squirrel kept following me. I could tell it was hungry. It was, like, reaching toward me. Then I remembered: I had peanuts in my bag! Next thing you know, a ton of pigeons come, a ton of squirrels. I even fed the squirrel by hand. They were really friendly animals. I don’t know if it was because of my aura—I had a crystal on my neck. That was the happiest I’d been in a while.

After that, I would go to East River Park almost every day. There was nothing else to do, because of quarantine. I didn’t have any friends because I’d moved to a new neighborhood—nobody’s going to get near you with this virus. But the birds would see me from afar, and they’d come flying. There would be ten birds on my lap, on my shoulder, on my head, too. I was like a male Snow White! I really wish I had a friend to record it—I’m pretty sure that would’ve gone viral.

One bird was white with two bracelets on its feet, an escaped racing pigeon. I’d been feeding him for months, but I didn’t know that they’re not supposed to be in the streets, that they could get killed by a hawk, that they don’t have the instincts. The white pigeon was always alone. He wouldn’t fly with the other birds. I brought him to the shelter. Another day, I went to Union Square. I saw a bird with a broken leg. He was trying to get the food that I was throwing, but he couldn’t. He was just hopping around on one foot. I caught him, too. His name’s Rocky. The white one is Zen.

Zen never really liked me. Rocky is different, because I rescued him. I bought a first-aid kit, looked up a bunch of YouTube videos, and made a cast until the foot was healed. I got some vitamins, pills, and pain-relief cream. He loves me. When I call his name and snap my fingers, he’ll fly to my hand. He’ll make a happy noise when he sees me. When I pet him, he’ll close his eyes and purr.

We’ve been in shelters since 2019. We’ve been on the nycha waiting list for, like, ten years. Until I bought a cage, the birds lived in a crib. I taped a blanket around the bars. I had a ritual to hide them from the maintenance men. It wasn’t difficult until my mom snitched. I had to talk with the social worker, who made me leave them at my grandma’s house. It was hard to let them go.

Maybe this quarantine changed me for the better. I’m starting my first business right now, selling crystals. It’s called Faith in Stones. I became a vegan, too. My mom doesn’t really support it, so I buy my own stuff. Right now, I’ve got celery, blueberries, strawberries, bananas, kale, spinach, broccoli, and asparagus.

I got jumped last year, so they transferred me to a new school. They put me in twelfth grade—I skipped eleventh. I thought it was an accident, but the counsellors said I’ve got enough credits. I’m gonna be sixteen in college! As soon as I could, I went in person to school. I stopped after a few days. It was whack. I wanted to go meet new people, but there were only three others in the room. All we’d do is sit down and do Zoom. What’s the point?

In December, they told us that they’d found an apartment for us. They gave us the address and everything. I missed school so we could pack. Then they told us it’s not ready.

We finally moved two weeks ago. The place is small, there’s no furniture—I’m used to sleeping on the floor anyway—and bringing back the pigeons was a lot of work. But I felt free. I had my own room. And I had my own key! Now if I ever get some friends I can bring them here. I talk to this spiritual girl, she’s into crystals and all that. I still have the pigeons only because I want to show her. After that, I’m gonna find a new home for Zen, and I’m gonna set Rocky free. ♦

This interview was originally published for the New Yorker magazine.

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