Finding Calm

Between the grand jury decision not to indict former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson last Monday, today’s decision not to indict New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo and the proposed (although now temporarily reprieved) execution via death penalty for Scott Panetti, a paranoid schizophrenic in Texas, my heart is heavy. I am finding it difficult to concentrate on writing, on affordable housing, on anything other than injustice. I am disappointed, mainly, in the powerful people in our country and cannot see past their bad to the good I know exists.

When I sat down to write this post, I was saddened. I was overcome by frustration, grief, and anger. I wanted to run with all my energy to Ferguson, to New York City, to Texas -to everywhere there is human injustice in this country -before heading overseas until I personally confronted perpetrators of social destruction throughout each continent. I wanted to create havoc. I wanted to compel compassion.

But of course I am just one person. And funds and time are limited, as is my power of persuasion. Because face it: even if I did, by some unholy miracle, make it to the feet of all the people who’s hearts and minds I wish to change, they would listen with blank stares (if not with outright hostility) and nothing would happen. And I would wander home heartbroken. And that might be the end of my fight forever.

So instead I will listen to reason, and accept the acts that make me sad. I will understand they are part of life. I will understand they are past my control. And I will focus on the good.  And I will focus creating change as I can, with my actions and with my words.

Which brings me to the intended subject of this post today: the story of Arletha.

I met Arletha in early 2013 when I interviewed her as part of the Uptown Stories project, in which Ilana and I collected the stories of Uptown residents including more than a dozen tenants of the supportive affordable Mercy Housing buildings. She was warm and talkative during that first interview, eager to tell us what it was like to live in Uptown. Over the two years I have known her, she has never failed to make me smile. She is generous, creative and kind. She is an admirable poet, even though she pretends writing comes as a struggle.

The following is an excerpt from an essay I wrote that combines elements from her original interview transcript with my own narration. The opinions, viewpoints, and tone are Arletha’s. My input, after the italicized introduction, is in organization and clarification of thoughts. Enjoy.

Arletha’s mouth is always upturned in a half smile unless she is concerned or curious, and then her whole face furrows until the question is resolved, at which point the smile returns. Arletha likes bright colors and exudes positive energy. She does not like to be seen without her makeup on or her hair in place. She often quotes scripture to make a point, although she realizes that not everyone shares her beliefs and is conscious not to proselytize. She was clear that this essay about her life should be cheerful.

When the blizzard hit Chicago in 2011, Arletha was living on the streets: “I was out there in that. And, um, every night the shelters near the south side, they were always filled. So the lady [who ran the shelter] asked me what did I think about traveling, and I said it didn’t matter because I didn’t want to sleep out in the cold.” Arletha was sent to a shelter in Rogers Park; she calls this move “a blessing in disguise.” A few months after relocating to the shelter, Arletha found permanent housing in a building operated by Mercy Housing in Uptown, where she continues to live. She grew up in Englewood but had she known about the north side, she says, “I would have been here [Uptown] a long time ago.”

Arletha’s affinity for Uptown, although now entrenched, was slow to emerge. The contrast between the north and south sides of Chicago was a shock: “When I first came, I didn’t like it. Everything was new to me. That’s like, when I first came here –Woah, I was depressed! I came from a large house and had to come to a –man!  But, I’m getting used to it. It doesn’t bother me now like it used to at first …But hopefully, I’ll get a much bigger apartment than I have here. I just like room.” Once she moved past the confines of her apartment, however, Arletha was happier in her new home. She enjoys being near stores like Target and Jewel, and the ease with which she can bike around town to do her errands.

On her bike rides, Arletha has noticed condos replacing low-income buildings along Uptown’s streets. She is not against gentrification, but does not understand why condos and low-income buildings cannot coexist. “The new condos, that’s fine, but the people that are buying the poor people out, to me that’s heartless. Because they’re lost, they don’t care what happens to those that are unfortunate or not able to do for themselves right now …this is all that the poor people have right now, living and being on the streets; it seems like they should consider that.” Without facilities for low-income individuals, such as homeless shelters and single room occupancy buildings (SRO), Arletha knows she would still be living on the street enduring rain, snow and heat. She says the safe, reliable shelter at Mercy has given her the chance to rebuild her life with stability. She wants everyone in need to have a similar opportunity.

From Arletha’s perspective, those in charge of condo development, “don’t care what happens to people. And if you don’t care about people –things don’t matter, it’s people that matter, you know. Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Arletha finds it difficult to sympathize with people who, in her estimation, do not consider how their actions affect others.

The inspiration for Arletha’s compassion, without regard to income or circumstance, comes from the Bible. She believes, “the Bible should be a guide to people … every problem man has is in the Bible.” Through repeated readings of the Bible, Arletha has learned, “God has provided for the poor people, he thought about the poor. Those that are well off, like the farmers, they are not to glean everything, they leave something for the poor for them to glean.” Arletha does not deny the wealthy their right to money, but she believes that those who are blessed with prosperity should provide in some way for those who are struggling.


I have written before about the healing power of Mercy Housing residents. Their strength encourages me to work not with anger, but with dignity. I am blessed, honored, overjoyed to have them as examples of positive living. The world may be shitty, and it may leave me filled with rage and unhappiness, but understanding the bad makes the good so much better. So when you find yourself shouting and crying and yelling at the media for reporting stories that make no sense, bring your thoughts to the advocates for social change, to small victories that do not make news headlines, to the people who have secured affordable housing, and find calm.










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