It was a morning like any other:
Susy Ramirez woke up in her car in Reno, Nevada. As she made her way to work, Ramirez looked into the rear view mirror to see a police car following behind her. She felt uneasy. The officer pulled her over just as she could see her workplace in the distance. The officer accused Ramirez of driving with expired registration, though she knew she had just renewed it. Ramirez asked the officer to let her go, she said she was already late for work and needed to get there as soon as possible. The officer agreed let her go and she breathed a sigh of relief. Ramirez had spent over a month living off her car and showering at friends’ house when she could, the last thing she needed was to get harassed by a police officer and end up late for work.
Susy Ramirez prefers to go by her Nahuatl name, Xōchítl Pāpalōtl Ramirez, because she takes pride in her indigenous culture. Ramirez’s family is from Mexico City and she grew up in Washoe County where she lived in various locations between Pyramid lake and Lake Tahoe areas. When she was 8-years-old, Ramirez moved to Reno after a divorce between her mother and father.
Shortly after moving to Reno, Ramirez’s mother ran out of money as maintaining a home, working two jobs and taking care of two children became too much to bear.
“When I was in high school, my mom remarried,” Ramirez said. “But her relationship became abusive, so my mom separated and after that we were homeless again and ended up moving back in with my grandparents.”
Ramirez moved out of her family’s home when she was 19, she had already begun taking classes at the University of Nevada, Reno when she began living with a partner. Her partner quickly became abusive. She left the relationship and, once again, her home.
While Ramirez was attempting to escape the abusive relationship, she also found herself failing the three classes she was taking that semester at UNR.
“I was really depressed at the fact that I had failed three classes, but I believed that somehow I would pull through,” Ramirez said. “The time I was living in my car, I told myself that I love myself enough to live a decent life. I remember telling myself I’d rather be on the streets than living in a toxic environment.”
After being houseless for several months, Ramirez found aid at a local non-profit organization dedicated to ending family violence and providing individuals with services to lead them to a healthier lifestyle.
Ramirez said she would never forget one woman she met during her time there, a mother, recovering addict and former sex worker.
“She would come home to where we were staying and she would bring me stuff and say ‘this is for you,’” Ramirez said. “We didn’t have money. That was powerful to me, she really taught me humbleness.”
The winter that Ramirez was staying at the local nonprofit, she got the opportunity to interview for a new job.
“When it came time for the big day, all the women there helped me prepare for my interview,” Ramirez said. “One did my hair, one did my makeup, one got me a suit, one made me coffee that morning and my mom gave me a ride [there]. I will never forget that day. I got the job.”
After about two months of working her new job, Ramirez found herself with her own place and a new car.
But in February, disaster. Ramirez fell into a coma for several months due to a rare disease called encephalitis. Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain caused by a viral infection or the immune system mistakenly attacking the brain tissue. Fewer than 200,000 cases of encephalitis are reported per year. Mild cases of encephalitis can cause flu symptoms, but severe cases, like Ramirez’s, can be life threatening.
Ramirez got the medical attention she needed and woke up from her coma after three months, remaining in the hospital for another month. Unable to work, Ramirez lost her job and, once again, lost her home.
Ramirez began living with her family, who had found stable housing, and enrolled back into classes at UNR. Even after many academic struggles, Ramirez was set to graduate last December, but because she fell sick she could not take the classes she needed.
Ramirez is currently in her last semester at UNR and is expecting to graduate with her Bachelor of Arts degrees in sociology and women’s studies in May.
“My experiences have taught me that houseless people are human beings, we are human beings,” Ramirez said. “For a lot of people, there is a stigma attached to houseless people that they are usually criminals, those that are unpleasant to even look at, but [my experience has broken] that stigma in me. I realize that it could be anyone and what really matters is what people have inside them.”
Since overcoming her own houselessness, Ramirez has dedicated herself to helping families through the experience she had to go through. Ramirez also said she tries to pressure the Reno City Council and Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve to do more for the houseless population.
“I want elected officials to go out there and ask us what we need, not make decisions based on statistics and what they think should be done. I want them to ask us what we need and how they can meet those needs,” Ramirez said. “
Ramirez is currently looking for a permanent home in Reno.
“I finally have enough money in my savings account to start looking for a stable home,” Ramirez said. “I am excited.”