In 2011 Linda was I was living on the third floor of a three flat in Cicero that was owned by the mother of her boyfriend. His mother didn’t know she was living there and didn’t approve of them dating. Linda had to be very careful when coming and going and moving through the house. She learned the homeowner’s daily routines and managed to stay out of her way for over 2 years. She often did the cooking and cleaning for all three of them, but in secret.
It all ended one day when the two women unexpectedly passed on the stairs. That same day her boyfriend told her she would have to move out. That night Lynda slept in the car.
The next day they went to Walmart and bought a tent and a space heater and she moved into the unheated garage. An extension cord ran electricity from the house for a small space heater, microwave and crockpot. She could make food but not store it, so her diet was mostly canned food, which bothered her since she was proud of her cooking skills. The living space was sparse. She slept on a bed made of blankets layered on top of cinder blocks. Her boyfriend did her laundry so she always had something clean to wear but without running water, she didn’t have access to a shower a bathroom. Her only toilet was a bucket and sometimes it got so cold the contents were frozen solid. There was no lock on the garage and she was always worried that someone was going to come in the middle of the night and assault her.
Linda lived in that dirty, damp, and dusty garage with spiders and rodents for almost 4 years. Her boyfriend never considered her homeless and said she “had it good out there” but even though she made do and tried to stay upbeat, she knew she wasn’t supposed to be living there. People in the neighborhood knew she came and went so she was always scared someone would call the police on her. When it was really cold she learned to ride the trains or buses to stay warm. Sometimes if she had the money, she would go to the movie theater and spend as much time there as possible.
Linda was embarrassed to accept help and tried to maintain a normal life. She didn’t want anyone to know her situation but she didn’t know how to change things. Then, her health began to deteriorate, mosly likely due to her living conditions. She went to her doctor appointments but would never tell them what was really going on. She started having serious trouble breathing and started to use oxygen. The replacement canisters were delivered to the main house because delivery to the garage wasn’t an option, and she was always trying to intercept them before they gave away her secret.
One day, when Linda was talking with a social worker at the hospital, they asked why she always had so many bags with her. That question finally made her break down and admit her habit of always carrying food and extra clothes just in case she couldn’t get back to the garage. She told them she was tired because she never really got a good night’s sleep.
That staff member gave her three phone numbers of agencies to call for help. Housing Forward was the first to call back. Jennifer, one of the Outreach and Engagement Specialists came to the garage for a site visit. She immediately said the conditions were unacceptable and that Linda deserved better, especially with her health situation. Jennifer connect her to Tiffani who became her Case Manager and in February of 2017, with their help in navigating the system, Linda moved into her own apartment. After being homeless for so long, she finally had a safe place to call home. Although she is still together with that same boyfriend, she decides when and if she invites him, or anyone else over. Her favorite part of her apartment is the kitchen. Her health has steadly been improving and her prognosis is much better.
“Without Housing Forward,” Linda says, “I probably wouldn’t be here talking to you today. Being homeless was a part of myself I didn’t like.”
These days Linda regularly attends monthly Tenant’s Club Meetings Housing Forward in Maywood, and if she has the use of a car, she offers rides to the friends she’s made in the club. Last month on her birthday she brought homemade cheesecake to the office to share with Jennifer and Tiffani. This weekend, as a way of giving back and helping others, she will be the featured speaker at the 21st Annual Have-a-Heart Gala.
“It is never ok to stay homeless,” Linda says with her usual smile. “Housing Forward helped me to see that, and helped me to return to a life of stability. I can’t thank them enough.”