This I Know: Home 

American asks four wonks to weigh in on a single topic 

Illustra­tion by
Traci Daberko

illustrations of a welcome mat, a key, a cardboard box and a cross-stich sampler

Yami Payano, CAS/BS ’17

I was born in New York to Dominican immigrants. When I was six months old, we moved back to the Dominican Republic, where we stayed for seven years. Upon returning to the US, the only English I knew was, “I don’t speak English.” 

Higher education was foreign to my parents. But as my love for the US grew, so did my desire to go to college. We never talked about my parents’ legal status; it felt like I had to protect them. After arriving in DC, I realized that wasn’t the case. AU and other DC organizations were on our side. With their support, I felt safe to share my story. 

I am at home wherever my parents are. If they are not here, how can this be my home? If they are not accepted, I feel like I am not accepted—unwanted in the country of my birth. Home is a place where you feel accepted, loved, and understood. It is family. It is community. Home is the United States. 

Payano is a fellow at Georgetown University’s China Initiative.

Lexi Ivers, SPA/BA ’18

Anyone who has lived in foster care will tell you that home isn’t just a place—it’s a feeling. Most children waiting to be adopted hope for much more than a roof and four walls. They have shelter: they are waiting to feel seen, safe, and loved. To be at home is to experience all of these things in a space that is uniquely your own. Our home can’t be appreciated by outsiders, and therein lies the beauty: in an uncertain world, home is the only space where we feel safe to dream. We can let down our guard because we are seen and loved. 

When my parents adopted me, they gave me a home. We have moved many times, but no matter where we are, I am always home when I am with them. Home exists beyond biological connections and geographic boundaries. Home is wherever we are, surrounded by those who encourage us to be our true selves. Home is familiar. It is unchanging. 

Ivers is a 2017 Truman Scholar. She spent the first three years of her life in foster care in her native Philadelphia.

Jerod Lee, SPA/BA ’14

My organization’s motto is “Home, health, and hope.” Health comes from having a stable place to sleep, home-cooked meals, a place to keep medicine, and of course, shelter from the elements. It’s also having a comfortable place to return when you’ve been discharged from the hospital, or simply having a bathroom to use.

Hope is more intangible, so it’s difficult to observe or measure. For the 3,000 clients we serve each year, it means looking forward to a promising future, rather than wondering where their next meal will come from or where they’ll sleep that night. It’s the hope of reestablishing family ties, or pursuing an education or career.

This is why the “housing first” model works. We start by housing people directly from the streets. Then we address goals around mental health, addiction, medical care, employment, and education. “Housing first” gives people the supports to live healthy, fulfilling lives.

Lee is outreach program manager at Pathways to Housing DC. 

Mark Bergel, CAS/MS ’87, CAS/PhD ’96

Home. I think about it a lot: how a home is essential in this life, how so many people do not have a home, and how others really only have walls, floors, and a ceiling. I meet thousands of people every year who can count their possessions—if they have any at all—on one hand.

I think about how central the concept of home is to our identities, yet we do not make it a priority to ensure that everyone has a safe, stable home. What kind of neighbors are we—what kind of a community—that even while so many are stressed out about having too much stuff, right around the corner so many have nothing? And we tolerate it, living every day as if it’s normal.

The resources exist in our region to ensure that every one of us can go to sleep each night in a true home: a place of stability, comfort, and dignity. I know that I will only be comfortable in my home when my neighbors are comfortable in theirs.

Bergel is founder and executive director of A Wider Circle.