I was in middle school the first time I became homeless.
I don’t remember my mom telling me we were losing the apartment or that we would be staying with friends for a little while. I don’t remember being scared or afraid; just my mom telling me that we would be okay.
We were homeless for a year. My family was split up, due to our size, but thankfully most of us had a buddy to travel with wherever we moved to. First it was a friends basement, then a friends bedroom floor, then a homeless shelter, then camp, then more friends; it seemed like it would never end. While all my friends spent their middle school years planning sleepovers and having throwing parties, I had to attempt to explain to new friends that no, they couldn’t come over to my house because I didn’t have one. No, I didn’t have a bedroom. No, those people I live with aren’t m real parents. No, I’m not really adopted.
I used to think I was fine. That I was a kid, I barely remember so its okay. I have a home now. I just signed my first lease for an apartment with my best friend and we’ve lived here a month already. I shouldn’t have to worry about sleeping in a car or not knowing where my next meal will come from. Not again.
But it turns out a home is more than a roof over your head.
I faced a different kind of homelessness when I was in high school. My father had an affair, leaving a pregnant wife and 8 kids to fend for themselves. It felt like our home broke; Mom couldn’t be there as much since she had to get a job. Shane went away to school. We didn’t have a father so we made due with me and the older ones attempting to fill his heavy shoes. The threat of homelessness was always hanging in the air. Bills were always too tight. Our landlords never did enough. Our old house was constantly falling apart. My dad leaving was the last straw. I didn’t know that sometimes homes were people and sometimes people evict themselves. It didn’t feel like a home for some time; just a building with a roof and four walls.
Once you’ve been homeless, you learn that unpacking boxes is a futile effort. By the time you are finished taking apart the last box, its already time to buy more tape to throw it all back together again. I’ve developed a habit of never putting anything away; I pull my clothes out of plastic bins instead of buying a dresser. Something about the weight of a dresser feels too permanent.
Spiritually speaking, I have been homeless for over two years now; the pandemic finally forced me to step back and re-analyze myself. It made me realize how exhausted I was from it all; how much of a toll it had taken on me to stay in a space where I was constantly required to be hypervigilant; always ready to defend myself, always ready to pretend or hide some part of myself. I felt like the prodigal son except if the father had never noticed his absence. I just became a statistic. You know, part of the X amount of people in this generation that are leaving the church or whatever. I’ll be part of the statistical analysis they run to figure out the precise method for prolonging church attendance. I know better than anyone that research is easier than human interaction. Its easier to find data to figure out where you went wrong then it is to be in the presence of someone you have harmed.
My church was my home for over 20 years. I felt like the problem child; I ran away not because of hatred, but because of pain and the crippling sense that even though I was a part of the family, I was too dangerous to be kept around. I thought when shepherds lost their sheep, they would abandon the flock to find the single little lamb. I feel like I’ve been wandering for a long time in the wilderness. I’m starting to think that no one is coming.
Today my family is packing to move. Their time is up; the landlord sold the house to a neighbor who has waited long enough; he has big plans for our property and the playground he is building for his children cannot wait. And so, for what seems like the millionth time now, my family is throwing everything they want to keep into cardboard boxes and abandoning the rest to be demolished along with the remains of a broken down building. Our second home to go down in flames.
I can’t stop staring at the pile of stuff I have at the end of my room; its just a stack of boxes and baskets and vacuum sealed bags. I could put it away, but why would I?
I sleep with one eye open. One foot always out the door; always ready to dip out the second I start to sense the walls are falling through. Sometimes its because something is really shaking; other times, there is not even a rumble, just my insides rattling around inside my body. Oftentimes, I can’t really tell the difference.
Children who grow up without stable housing tend to become adults with unstable sense of selves; trust me, I would know. I’m beginning to peel the first layers of tape off my emotional boxes that have been stored away for so long, I’ve nearly forgotten what is in them. One is labeled heartache, one fear, another pain, and then the dozens of containers made just for my anger. Those are heavy boxes to carry, but the one I’m scared to open is the one labeled joy. That one always hurts the most to put away when its time to move on.
Currently, in Chicago, there are estimated to be over 4,000 homeless individuals, and that is just within one cities limits. If you count all of Illinois, the number skyrockets to over 10,000, with over 1,000 of them being family households and over 600 unaccompanied youth. Across the United States, the numbers are even more staggering. As of 2021, there are approximately 580,466 individuals experiencing homelessness. Of that number, 171,575 are people in families, 37,252 are veterans, and over 110,000 face chronic unstable housing.
My family is among the hundreds of thousands of people facing unstable housing and poverty in a country that flaunts wealth with promises of liberty and justice for all. It makes me wonder why homelessness disproportionately impacts Black people or why it is too often children that suffer when rich politicians make laws to give themselves tax breaks and refuse to support rent control initiatives.
Homelessness is not just a housing issue. It is a mental health issue, a crime and safety issue, a racial justice issue, and a family issue; but it is not a personal issue. Homelessness is a manmade problem and it requires a manmade solution; not hopes and prayers, not well wishes or sympathy. It requires real hands, real people, and real money.
I do not know when I will have enough to feel secure, or if I ever will. No amount ever seems sustainable enough. There is always the fear that something will come and threaten to take it all away. We learn helplessness. We learn that it hurts less to remain homeless than to face the chronic fear and instability of living in a home. Unlearning fear takes time and effort and sometimes, we don’t have the heart.
To donate to my family directly, you may Venmo me here with the description “family”
To make a difference in the lives of neighbors in Chicago facing homelessness, donate here to the Night Ministry (You may also include my post as a reason for donating or make a donation in my family’s honor.)
The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless is another great organization to give to.
And as always, it is best to give directly to individuals and families in poverty; don’t forget to keep cash for your neighbors outside.