Renatta grew up in the Pacific Northwest, bouncing from apartment to apartment with her grandmother.
“I’m the oldest of five, but my mother just couldn’t mother, so we were all separated in the foster care system and sent to various relatives,” Renatta said. “Thankfully, my grandmother took me in.”
Living with a disability, Renatta’s grandmother could no longer work. She kept the duo afloat by being savvy and applying to programs for low-income apartments with subsidized rent. But the two faced housing inspections and having to move when programs ended. Often, their electricity would be shut off or they’d run out of food.
“I was aware from a young age that we didn’t have money,” she said. “I was a kid who constantly and legitimately worried, What happens if we lose our housing? That continued through high school, when I’d get teased for not being able to afford the right clothes. It was all just really hard.”
She was still in high school when her life was shaken by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“I felt devastated, like my safety had been violated,” she said. “That’s when I first started thinking about the idea of joining the military. I was really proud to be an American.”
College was off the table because of finances: No one had ever talked with Renatta about financial aid or scholarships, so she figured the expense put higher education out of reach. She dropped out of high school at age 16 to enroll in the no-cost, advanced culinary program at Job Corps in California, where she learned how to cook, bake, and decorate cakes.
There was a recruiter’s office on campus, and at 18, she pursued a future in the Army to serve her country and get her college education. “I asked to be a cook in the military,” Renatta said. “Then my test scores came back, and I did so well that instead they made me a chemical operations specialist doing nuclear biological chemical defense.”
In that role, which is quite different from piping icing onto birthday cakes, Renatta excelled. After basic training, she trained military units before they went to Iraq and Afghanistan on how to collect soil samples to detect the level of nuclear and biological or chemical threat so they could warn other soldiers to avoid certain areas. She stayed in the military for several years, but left after she experienced some traumatic events that would eventually lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
After she left the military, Renatta moved back to Washington and earned her associates degree, then worked as a medical assistant. Looking for something new she tried going back to college, but struggled with her focus. She reconnected with her love of cooking and worked her way up to assistant manager at a restaurant. She then did some nonprofit work with a food bank before going back to school to study beauty — and was one semester away from graduating when the pandemic shut down schools and salons.
“Being trapped in the house was very difficult for my mental health. I struggled with PTSD to the point where I stopped really living. I ended up going to a treatment center for veterans that addresses mental and physical health issues.”
When she left the program, she was essentially homeless with nowhere to go. She worked with a veterans’ transition project that had COVID-19 funding to help veterans stay for free in motels. Renatta moved to Portland with just a car filled with boxes and nothing else to her name. While staying at the motel, another vet brought in a flyer about Habitat for Humanity’s list coming open for people to apply to become homeowners. Figuring it couldn’t hurt to try, Renatta applied. When she saw she was 220th in line, she didn’t think she stood a chance.
“I always wanted to be a homeowner, but I never in my life thought it was possible,” she said. Then came the offer to purchase a new Habitat condo in the Kenton neighborhood in North Portland.
“I said, Yes, absolutely! We did a tour, and it was so exciting. I just know getting this will be everything. I’ve always dreamt of having this kind of stability.”
Renatta is now completing her partnership work hours with Habitat, and hopes to move in by summer. She already has Pinterest boards for inspiration of how she’s going to design every room to make it truly feel like home: floral wallpapers; a lilac and silver color palette in the bedroom; pink, gray, and gold for the living room; floral with black and white with a black ceiling for the bathroom; an artsy tile backsplash in the kitchen; plants and a little barbecue for the patio.
“I feel so grateful because in a little over a year I will have gone from homeless to homeowner,” Renatta says. “I never could have predicted this for myself, and I’m thrilled.”