Steve Cherenfant poses in front of a mural at Sasha Bruce Youthwork office in Eastern Market. The mural was painted by young people at the organization.

Steve Cherenfant, 21, considers himself lucky. Although he grew up in what he called an “unstable environment,” he never had to resort to couchsurfing or sleeping in a homeless shelter. He had a loving father and a house he called home. For several years, however, he lived alone with his father who was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

“It’s kinda difficult,” he said. At times, his father had conversations with himself, would hallucinate and was hos- tile toward Steve.

“He would have thoughts of suspicions that I was plotting against him,” he said.

His mother died giving birth to him. When he was five years old his father moved him and his three siblings from Haiti to the United States. They lived in Florida until Steve was eight and then they moved to Washington, D.C., to live in Ward 8.

By the time Steve was a teenager and his father was diagnosed with schizophrenia, his two older sisters had left the house and his younger sister, from a different mother, had gone to live with her aunt.

His relationship with his father was always intense.

“There were times when we were very angry at each other. Times that we had the utmost amount of love between us,” he said.

He described their connection as an “unbreakable bond.”

His father sometimes forgot to pay utility bills and both of them would be without power for days or even months. “It was frustrating for me because at school I felt like a social outcast. I didn’t have many friends or much of a social life,” Steve said.

Along the way, he has struggled with his own mental health.

“I’ve had depression. I was seeing a psychologist outside my school and she diagnosed me as having bipolar disorder,” he said. “Sometimes I would be high, sometimes I would be low, really sad, hitting rock bottom. At one point, I was having suicidal thoughts.”

When he was 16, the school psychologist referred him to Sasha Bruce Youth- work to get help because he had trouble concentrating at school. Sasha Bruce is a non-profit organization working to help D.C.’s young people who are unstably housed and at risk of homelessness.

“It was not until I joined Sasha Bruce that I started doing more, becoming more open. Doing things for myself, I started going out,” he said.

The organization also advised him to see a psychiatrist. He said although he has yet to overcome all his “demons,” he feels his mental health has returned. After his father died in 2009, Sasha Bruce became his mainstay. The organization provided him with housing and helped him finish high school.

Even so, it was a struggle to get his high school diploma, but he worked hard and graduated on time.

“In the end I still loved my father and I tried my best to take care of him in any way possible,” he said. “I only wished he could see me graduate.”

Growing up in his neighborhood posed another challenge, as “Ward 8 could be quite dangerous at times,” he said.

It can be difficult, he said, to have friends and socialize while trying to avoid drugs. This is especially hard for the youth who are in an unstable home environment. Before he went to the program he was scared of the outside world.

“I could not even go out by myself. Since I joined Sasha Bruce I came out of my shell, started to do things for my- self,” he said.

“I never thought I would have so many people helping me in my entire life. I consider myself very fortunate.” He said if he had not gotten any support, he would be in a worse situation. He would hide from the world instead of going out. “I can’t imagine living a life like that. I would not grow.”

Steve, who now rents his own place with support from an independent living program, is a student at The Art Institute of Washington, studying media arts and animation and working towards a bachelor degree. Never in his life has he taken school as seriously as he does now.

“My biggest dream is to have an animated cartoon show,” he said. “I’ve been drawing since I was a child.”

The first cartoons Steve watched during his childhood brought him an “immense amount of happiness.” He said he wanted to share the same happiness with children. He loves Japanese anime maker Hayao Miyazaki’s work. “My biggest dream has always been to go to Japan. One day I’m gonna go there, gonna have the money and I’m gonna love it.”

A confident and articulate young man, Steve is now set to create his own anime series. He plans to do research so his work can be “original.” He said he will focus on his dream before thinking about building his own family. He does not plan to marry until he is at least 30, he said.

Even with the support he still faces difficulties. Education is not cheap; he has taken out two loans and made regular proposals for grants from the government.

“I have to keep an optimistic mind,” he said. “I have endured a lot during my life. I’m still young, 21, there’s a lot more that I’m going to experience but I know I have a strong will and determination to achieve my goal.