Longing for a Place to Call Home
“I still get shivers thinking about living in our car, not knowing who was going to walk up to it any time of the day or night,” said 21-year-old Eric recalling the year he and his wife, Emani, spent living in a friend’s 1995 Chevy Tahoe. “Every single day was high anxiety.”
That anxiety proved justified when they returned from a friend’s house one evening to find the car shot up with dozens of bullets, their belongings inside destroyed.
Eric and Emani are some of the nearly 1 in 20 Chicagoans who are homeless, often sleeping on the streets, in cars or moving from home to home of the friends or family members who will take them in. About 15 percent of that population is considered “chronically homeless.”
For Eric, homelessness is generational. His mom became homeless when he was 19, not that there was much stability before that. His dad wasn’t in the picture. Without a solid home, Eric was drawn to the community and structure of a gang, which led to the kind of activities that landed him in juvenile detention and, when he got older, jail. But he was surprised and disappointed when his fellow gang members disappeared when he went to jail. “I learned that people who said they loved me didn’t,” Eric said. “And I realized I don’t want to do this no more.” Emani, then his girlfriend, helped him leave, and provided a healthier source of love and support.
As Eric tried to get a job to support Emani and himself, his criminal record became a problem. It also didn’t help that his mother had long ago lost his social security card and birth certificate, not to mention not having a permanent address to put on an application. Occasionally friends would let them use their address for such forms, but that wasn’t always reliable.
At first the young couple moved from friend’s couch to friend’s couch while they tried to find jobs and become self-sufficient. But when they eventually wore out their welcomes, they started living in a friend’s car. Even then they had structure – wake early, shower at a friend’s house, look for jobs. Even then they helped others, giving some of their meager resources to people begging on the street. “Helping others is my calling,” Eric said.
“That’s a common misconception about homeless people, that they have no hopes or dreams,” said Carol Randolph, Director of The Salvation Army’s Booth Lodge shelter. “Anyone has the potential to be homeless. They aren’t that different from others. There’s no typical face of homelessness. It could be any of us in the wrong situation.”
When their car-home got destroyed, Eric and Emani landed at Booth Lodge, a former hotel that can house up to 220 individuals. Unlike many shelters, it allows family units to stay together. That was an important distinction for Eric. Still, it wasn’t an easy decision to go there. “I never planned to go to a shelter,” Eric said. “There was a lot of pride I had to shake off. I never wanted to beg. I always saw it as a last resort. But even my mom told me, ‘You got nothing else to lose.’”
Eric didn’t like life in the shelter at first. Most are places of strict rules, enforced curfews, high expectations. “Some don’t like the structure,” said Randolph. “They’re used to fending for themselves.”
Eric said he and Emani are focused on one thing: getting up and out of the shelter. They don’t want to get comfortable. “I see it as a place to rest our head and get our lives together.”
Pam Harrell, Volunteer/Staff Training Coordinator at Booth Lodge, has noticed Eric’s determination. “He wants to work and do for himself; he doesn’t want handouts,” she said. “He’s a good person who desires to be productive and to be the head of the family he never had.”
Fighting for Good
Even with Eric’s determination, many realities are stacked against him. Randolph says there’s not nearly enough subsidized housing in the Chicago area. “We have to go out to Danville, Peoria, Rockford, and LaFayettte, Indiana, to place people in affordable housing,” she said. And many potential landlords and bosses are unwilling to give a chance to those without a rental history, a work history or an address. While falling into homelessness is as easy as losing a job, having an accident or being born into poverty, breaking out is a complex challenge. As Eric said, “Nothing prepares you for homelessness.”
This is why The Salvation Army runs Booth Lodge and other shelters around Chicago. In 2018, in partnership with the City of Chicago, we opened Shield of Hope, the nation’s first emergency homeless assessment and rapid-response center. Perhaps most importantly, we work to prevent homelessness by providing emergency funds when a sudden job loss or medical crisis makes paying rent or utilities difficult.
We also work with people like Eric and Emani, providing shelter and job training and connecting them with subsidized housing and other community resources. For now, they do what they can. They keep filling out job applications. They keep learning – Emani has applied to nursing school and Harrell has encouraged Eric to get his GED and go to a trade school. And they keep dreaming of a better future. As Eric said, “All we do is think about how we’ll set up our home one day.”
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