Interviews with homeless people in Chicago: a work in progress.
|Following are sample interviews conducted for a proposed photo journal yet to be published.
Homeless in Chicago – Street Stories
“Man, all I really want is my four squares.”
The title is a slang term for the four basic needs of the “Street:” food, drink, cigarettes and a place to sleep. A “square” can also mean just a cigarette; in particular, the last end of the butt, the piece that gets thrown away.
Aged 43 Years
I’ve had to give up 3 homes and each time I was left homeless. Last time, my husband beat me real bad and finally I locked him out but he tried to break in through the window. Then he barricaded us in the house with 2 x 4s. I had to move two times to try to get away from him. He kept finding me. I did everything I was supposed to do, called the police and filed charges, went to court and got a restraining order, but those things run out. And nothing happened. I had to take my youngest children and go hide in a shelter.
I’ve been homeless now and hiding for 3 1/2 years, ever since the incident happened. I was supposed to have reconstructive surgery on my nose where it was broken. All my bottom teeth came out from the roots from the impact. This guy that abused me, I wasn’t the only one. I’ve heard he’s done it to a lot more before me. And these detectives and lawyers and everybody, if they know all this, why don’t they do something? You know when they step in and do something? When you’re almost killed or got your brains knocked out.
I identify with Jesus, like how he was lied on and talked about behind his back...persecuted... and I feel like it happened to me and I can feel what it was like for Jesus. I handled it. I can handle some more. I hope and pray it don’t happen. If I ever get myself out of this, I’m never going to put my kids through this again and have to give them to DCFS, if I can help it. But it wasn’t me that put them through it. Some outsider I let in without screening. I trusted him when I married him, but even if you like a person, seems like you ought to check them out, you see what I’m saying? Even friends, you just can’t trust sometimes. I feel betrayed, just like Jesus.
I grew up in Mississippi but left when I was gang-raped at 15. I have 6 children and one grandson who is 3 weeks older than my youngest daughter. My youngest child was born out of rape. My middle child was burned by the father of two of my other kids. My son lost his eye when he was two because of that violent man. Seems like no place is safe for me and my kids. I started going to church, got a job, tried to get a home again and got ripped off by a real estate guy, the same one who got my other house. This is the kind of stuff I’ve been going through ever since I was 15. You see what I’m saying? Persecuted.
Abuse in my family? Well, my father slapped my mother; my stepfather slapped her. My stepfather beat me with an extension cord but I fought back cause I wasn’t going to be quiet while he beat my ass. One thing I hate is to be told, shut up, shut up! My mother was afraid of him, and took it out on me. Once she beat me with that cord when I was talking to her, not talking back or anything. She took that thing and whacked me right across the back and left my scar.
Yeah, I knew my stepfather was abusive and once he tried something with me but I fought him off, and I heard my mother telling about him raping her, but she wouldn’t leave him for 10 years. She was afraid of him. She had to get rid of me before she could leave him, she said. I think there must be a place for me. There must be. You see what I’m saying?
I just want to be safe.
Aged 54 Years
I love my animals so much I can’t live without them. My three dogs are my family. I guess these are my worst times now; at least when we lived in my car in the forest preserves, we could be together at nights after I finished working.
Now, I only get to see them when I can sneak in and sneak them out of the warehouse, where I have them hidden, for walks. I miss them so much, and one of them - I’ve had her for 12 years now - is blind and deaf; but my landlord says I can’t have them in my room. I’m on welfare and live in subsidized housing.
Did you know it’s illegal to prevent senior citizens from having pets if they live in subsidized housing? But what power have I got to maintain my constitutional rights? So now I have to get out of there, he says. I’ve been fighting big corporations in court for so long, and they always win.
I never thought this could happen to me. I mean, I was a hell of a lot better equipped to survive and prosper in the world than lots of people, and still, it happened to me. I built a ten million dollar business based on a unique marketing idea, before I lost it all to white collar crime! I was traveling all over the world; my expertise was in federal regulations. I gave lectures to corporate groups on how to negotiate US government contracts.
I loved my work...when I was up against my biggest business competitor, I was peaked! I had big plans back then... wanted to have my own animal foundation…
Now I’m in the streets.
Aged 58 Years
The worst thing about not having a place to live is...I feel like an animal. Getting through the night..that’s as far as I can see from down here. Sleeping in the warmest dry spot I can find, if I’m lucky...squatting in alleys because there’s no toilet...digging through stinking garbage cans to eat...washing my hands in scummy puddles.
Get a job? What a joke! You want to hire me? Sure I want to work. You think I like living this way? Where would someone call me to tell me they want to hire me? How do I clean my clothes or myself up enough to look for work? What can I do? What a joke! Just give me a salary I can live on and a decent room of my own and 4 squares a day and I’m a happy man, no kidding. I know I sound like I’m carrying a grudge. Well, why not?
Once, I thought I had a future, back before I went overseas. I had a nice job working for my old man’s cousin at his garage. He told me I could maybe be a partner someday, if I stayed out of trouble and learned more about cars then he knew. Man, when I heard his business went belly up, I coulda cried.
Now, all I feel is bitter. Bitter and mean. You gotta be mean, just to survive. They made me mean in 'Nam. Told me I was supposed to be that way. I don’t remember leaving there. I remember my best friend Carly being blown into a million pieces next to me. I remember screaming when my gut was ripped open. I remember medics pumping drugs into me, telling me I was going home. What a joke. Home.
The next thing I know, I’m in some Vets hospital with tubes hanging out of holes I never had before. A bag hanging from my side..man, I’m a mess, no joke. I couldn’t hardly stand the pain. They gave me lots of stuff for that, treated me really good. Said I was a hero. They even gave me the Purple Heart. Then when I got hooked, they shut me off. Wham! Sorry, Charlie! I ain’t never been the same since.
You ask me why I don’t live in a shelter..you ever been in one of them places? They stink. They got bugs, thieves, nothing’s safe. Them thieves will steal your shoes while you’re asleep. And T.B. You hear about that going around these days? Man, it’s scary. At least when I’m outside, I can choose where I sleep and who I sleep next to. And, besides, you can’t live in them places. You have to line up in the cold, outside and hope they’ll still have a cot or floor space when they get to your number. If not, sorry Charlie, find some place else for the night. Then, if you do get in, they kick you out first thing in the morning.
Where am I supposed to go all day when it gets freezing outside? If I try to go to, say, the library to stay warm, somebody’s sure gonna complain to the guards, and they’re gonna kick me out. Sure, it’s a public place. But when you don’t have a place to live, you’re not entitled to share public places with the public. At least, that’s how some people believe. Three years ago, the toes on my left foot had to be cut off when I got frostbite. What’s out there for people like me? Where should I go?
The nightmares are the worst thing. I wake up sometimes, still crying. I feel so helpless. Man, all I want is a place to sleep that’s warm and safe and mine! I just want enough to eat that someone hasn’t already picked over and thrown away. I get so scared that I’ll die and no one will ever even know I was here.
Man, talk about alone.
as told by Andy
I am alone. Two weeks ago, I saw my best friend burn to death.
His name is Blue. He lived next to me under the expressway bridge by Chicago Avenue. He used to talk about some day looking for his two kids. I don’t know if he really had a family; Blue’s head was thick and cloudy. I used to think that was the only thing that kept him going. I was trying hard to not drink any more. It was three weeks. Blue didn’t drink at all and helped me get through those first days and nights. I miss my friend very much. He was a good friend. The old man was my family.
It was really cold that night; the rain never stopped. I saw Blue stuff some of his old oily rags and rolled up newspapers he was saving into a big can he got from the meat guy on Fulton Market. He squirted some lighter fluid in it and lit the rags and pulled it inside his crate. I felt bad for him, he was so cold. I thought I could maybe find a stove and some wood to burn to keep us both warm. I would search the next day, maybe. I had a plastic bag with newspapers in it and a ladies raincoat to cover up with, but it doesn’t help much. Finally I went to sleep, my belly hurting from being empty.
Later, when I heard screaming I didn’t know if it was real or not. If it was a dream, I wanted to wake up. The hair on my neck stood straight up when the terrible smell hit me. I knew what the smell was! When bodies are burning, it stinks the same under a bridge in Chicago as it does in a refugee camp in Russia.
I couldn’t save Blue. I tried. I really did. His box was burning up and he was still inside, screaming! My God, he screamed! I tried to get him. The fire was so hot. I ran for help, but no one comes around this neighborhood in the middle of the night. I ran and ran, I’m not sure where. At last I found a police car and they said they would get the fire department. I got back to the bridge as fast as I could, but it was too late for Blue. There was only a pile of smoking, stinking black where his house was.
Why did he do it? Why didn’t he crawl out of that thing? He should have. I know he could have. Why would he do that? I wish he hadn’t left me like that. Oh, God! I don’t know. Nothing seems right anymore. Nothing will get better.
Except maybe for Blue. Maybe he finally went home. I want that to be real.
Aged 65 Years
After everyone left, I couldn’t stop crying. I cried and I cried. Maybe I cried for both of us. I cried at my crazy life. All these years here in America, still I am a refugee. Me, a machinist, I speak seven languages and I can’t get a good job.
In Russia we were refugees. They said we couldn’t go back home to Mama’s family in Poland because Papa was a Cossack. We stayed alive through many freezing winters; some of our friends died in the refugee camp fire. That happened during a freezing winter night, too. There were so many who died because of the war. Some people said we were lucky to be alive after the fire.
Even after all these years, the memories won’t leave my head. Sometimes I think I am still in that awful place. Sometimes at night, I think I am dying. I can’t tell if I am sleeping or not. I try to wake up but sometimes I am already awake.
I remember when I was a small child about four, my uncle gave me my first glass of vodka to warm me and help me sleep. It helped me very much. I could not have made it through such horror without it, I think. Vodka was good to me. Things are the same now. I am still cold. Vodka still helps me sleep.
I think now there is no place for me except here, under this rusty old bridge with the sound of trucks over my head. I have built a house here now. It is a pyramid of cardboard with rugs over it. Pyramids are supposed to be good for you.
I drink again now; I don’t believe life will change if I do not drink. The drink helps only a little. Alone is still alone. It still hurts. Again, someone told me I’m lucky to be alive, but I think my good friend Blue is the lucky one. I think he will never be cold or hungry again. I pray to God sometimes to help me, too.
I don’t know...I still love God...I just don’t understand why He treats me so mean.
Aged 42 Years
I’ve been without a place to live since the Friday before Thanksgiving. My public assistance check got cut and I lost my apartment so I came to this shelter. I only have 3 months to be at this shelter so unless I get lucky and find work...cleaning work, or get public assistance or SSI, I’ll probably go to another shelter.
They have me in therapy now, starting Friday. I have 4 kids, one in Alabama and three in DCFS here. They tell you you can’t get your kids back til you get an apartment, but if you don’t have kids, you don’t qualify for an apartment. Go figure! I saw a trailer for sale for $500 in Carbondale. I thought if I get my SSI, I may go buy that place. When you own your own place, nobody can put you out.
When I met Larry, I thought he was so cute. He had a big Afro and looked like Lincoln of the Mod Squad. He was chocolate and had these big dimples. I thought he was so nice so I couldn’t believe how he turned out, really mean. I never knew he was the type to hit women.
I used to think, “Oh he is going to be really good for Wanda...he treats me so really nice.” We got a house together but he had me sign all the house papers. He never gave me any money and I had to pay all the bills. He had a girlfriend he liked to keep.
The first time he hit me I knew he’d been tripping around with his girlfriend. I wanted to talk to him about her. He made out like I wasn’t supposed to talk about her, she was better than me. So when I finally got ready to talk to him about leaving him and getting rid of the house, he hit me in the face and all over, you know, the plank floor.
I don’t like violence, you know? This time I thought he was going to murder me. He was really scary. He was a caseworker and I expected him to talk with me. I never met a caseworker I couldn’t talk with, till Larry. I finally got out of there and went to a shelter. I never see him now. We aren’t friends anymore.
Then I got married and had my daughter, but my husband sexually abused her and my son so DCFS took them away, but then gave them back. My husband used to beat me even when I was pregnant with my last son.
The kids would be in the windows in the projects and fighting and bruising each other. I had to be with them all the time and it didn’t seem like they wanted to be with each other. I told the psychiatrist but he said I was having delusions. He took my kids the last time the night before their therapy session and I haven’t seen them since. I never imagined when my kids were little that I would be without them. It was hard at first, but I got used to it. When I get lonely, I watch TV, stare at the walls. Every place reminds me of my children.
I get scared sometimes. What scares me the most is being out in the street with no shelter. I dream about being somewhere else. If my dreams came true, I’d probably be in the Skillys Islands. My dad told me about them before he passed in 1993. It always reminded me of Skittles candy so I thought I’d keep the Skillys Islands as my dream.
I don’t believe my father is really dead. He didn’t look deceased.
I’m going to look for him and see.