Ms. Jones talks about affordable housing

This blog is supposed to be for affordable housing news, policy and stories but has been on the former. This has not been a conscious decision -I am simply so excited (and enraged) by housing news that I cannot keep my thoughts to myself and stories have fallen by the wayside. I also have been unsure of how stories will be received. My stories do not attempt to sugar-coat the experience of homelessness. When I write these narrations (all of which are extrapolated from transcripts of interviews with residents of Mercy Housing), I do not embellish but I also do not edit out harsh opinions or observations. Everything is presented as fact, as seen through the eyes of the resident.

Today I will share with you the story of Ms. Jones, who came to Mercy Housing after a sudden disability left her without a job or a home. In the interest of space, I have condensed my original essay by half. I believe (and hope) I have retained the spirit of Ms. Jones.

Ms. Jones is a small woman, sixty-seven years old at the time of the interview. Her eyes are sharp. She carries herself like a queen, head high, no smile. She speaks through pursed lips, to hide her temporarily toothless gums. She pretends to be shy upon first meeting but the moment she senses an audience she lets loose an unending stream of conversation.

Ms. Jones was born in Alabama, the daughter of a sharecropper. When asked about life in the south, she tells a story about her grandmother:

We used to have to iron the sheets and our grandmother’s white linen tablecloth, you know. Had to be good and couldn’t sit on the bed. You know, it’s a southern thing. One time we stole our grandmother’s snuff and went to the outhouse. And we were so sick. She beat the shit out of us… That was the worse thing I ever done in my life. I don’t know how they could ever put that stuff in their mouth. I guess it’s just as bad as smoking a cigarette… We used to see her do it, you know. So we tried to steal it and she beat the shit out of us. It’s that southern thing.

For Ms. Jones, the south means clean linens, spotless homes and respect for elders. Although she has lived in the north for decades, she considers herself a mixture of both cultures. According to Ms. Jones, you never rid yourself of your southern roots.

During the 1960s, Ms. Jones and her family moved to Evanston.  Her grandmother worked as a nanny in Wilmette and her father worked for Republic Steel in Chicago.

Ms. Jones enrolled in Evanston Township High School shortly after her family arrived in their new home. She describes the process of her integration: “I was so scared. Coming from the south and then going to school with white kids who were scared of black kids…we were scared, they were scared. But I made it. They made it. It was a big change. For all of us.”

After surviving integration, Ms. Jones worked for thirty-three years as a surgical technician at Rush University. In 2007, for health reasons she does not disclose, she was compelled to resign and collect disability insurance.

After Ms. Jones left Rush University, her oldest son convinced her to move from her home in Des Plaines to his home North Carolina. She did not enjoy feeling dependent on her son and so, after a year at his house she returned, homeless, to Chicago. Her doctor suggested she live at Pacific Garden Mission (PGM) until she could get back on her feet.  She describes the experience:

For me, I enjoyed it. I had a ball since I just stayed the summer. Not like some people who’ve been there twenty-some years… I enjoyed it, but I cried a lot. I would see the ladies come in and I’d just break down and cry. But I enjoyed it. It was a new experience and I made the best of it. And they said I could always come back.

The stories told by other women in the shelter reminded her that life could be much worse.

Ms. Jones was grateful for her friends outside the shelter and her ability to maintain a positive attitude in a hard situation, which helped her to survive the experience.

I didn’t go to Pacific Garden to make it my home. I was the type of woman who would get out. And plus I had friends on the outside helping me. Some women didn’t like it. I guess because they were angry. When you’re angry you’re unhappy. But I was different. A lot of people thought I was stuck up. But that’s just me, the way I carry myself. You know, I’d never been homeless in my life! But I worked with it and I got out.

Ms. Jones refused to allow her journey to stagnate at the shelter.

After a few months, she moved from PGM to a Mercy Housing building in Uptown. She was familiar with the neighborhood because her aunt and uncle had lived there for almost forty years, beginning in the 1960s. She often visited them with her family when she was young. “The north side,” she says, “used to be my favorite place to come.” After decades of changes to the community, however, her opinion has reversed: “I don’t see nothing I like here [now] and it will never go back the way it was… I’m part of the old Uptown. It used to be so pretty.”

She supports the new condo developments proliferating in the neighborhood because they mean a removal of the area’s less positive aspects. She says these expensive high rises “are pretty good, getting rid of all the old stuff.” They represent, for Ms. Jones, the hope that Uptown will once again be a place she can consider her comfort zone.

Her own building, she confesses with regret, reflects Uptown’s decline. In her eyes, it is part of the distasteful new.  “I’m here in this building where people fell through the cracks, and I’m not one of them. Mostly young people in here. And, everybody gets on hard times, but we have three generations of people here who fell through the cracks. And that’s sad. To see them, in a situation like this.” As she did in the shelter, Ms. Jones remains distant to preserve herself.

Witnessing the struggles of Uptown has strengthened Ms. Jones’ resolve to avoid complacency. Like many other Mercy Housing residents, her days have been occupied by applying for a new apartment.  “My mission,” she says, “is not to make this my home. See, I still haven’t stopped. And I’m not going to stop until I get there, and then I can exhale.”

*A few weeks later, Ms. Jones was accepted into an affordable high-rise building for seniors in Edgewater, two miles north of her previous Uptown apartment. She is on an upper floor, with an unobstructed view of the lake. She has finally arrived, and finally exhaled. 


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