Deborah picks through a small shelf loaded with mementos, and chooses a faded photo of a young girl with a bright smile and dark, curly hair. “This is my mom,” she explains, beginning to cry. The resemblance is remarkable. It is clearly a cherished keepsake and a reminder of a better time in her life.
Deborah lived on the streets for nearly four years and was most recently living in one of the north side’s viaduct encampments. Through the chronically homeless pilot program established by the City of Chicago, Deborah’s Place has expanded its community-based services (CBS) program to house people living in these encampments. Deborah is one of the people who moved directly from the street into an apartment. Working with her case manager, Anna, Deborah has begun to settle into her new home.
Although she just moved in in December 2016, her place already feels warm and lived in. It is sparsely furnished, but cheerful, with items secured by Anna. “No one else that I talk to has a case manager that is as responsive or anywhere near as caring,” she says. The winter sun streams through the east-facing windows to illuminate the faces of her family and loved ones in faded photographs, like the one of her mother.
Before Deborah’s Place helped her into an apartment, Deborah wasn’t able to keep memories like this with her. Sleeping under the Fulton Street viaduct, Deborah was protected from the rain but not from the freezing winds off of Lake Michigan or from other people stealing from her or from animals seeking refuge under the bridge. “At night, all the little critters would come out and run across our bodies. You can’t imagine the horridness of it.” In spite of this, Deborah chose to live outside because her experiences in shelters were worse. She spent one winter in a shelter riddled with bedbugs. She was traumatized to wake up to tiny bites all over.
Even though her situation was desperate, she managed to find friends among the other homeless in the area. “It always felt like we really were a community,” she says. “They were my support system and I suppose I was theirs.” People in the neighborhood were kind to her as well, including a local priest whose services she still attends and a couple living in a nearby high rise who always stopped to chat while walking their dog. The rug on her living room floor was a moving gift from them.
After those and other harrowing experiences, she didn’t expect much from Deborah’s Place. She couldn’t imagine having her own apartment, as nice as this one, with shiny, new appliances and plenty of space. Deborah explains that where you live is who you are. “When I look around here, I see the memories. I feel more grounded. I know where my base is, I know I’ve been through down times, but I don’t necessarily feel like I’m less than anybody. I don’t devalue myself because I have been homeless. It’s a very safe place for me.”
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