Jessica Baker tries to peel her three-year-old brother’s fingers from their viselike grip on the plastic handcuffs, but each little digit snaps back into place as soon as it’s removed.

“Aaa! No! Aaa! No! Aaa! No!” the boy cries rhythmically as he holds on for dear life to his older brother’s toy.

“Let go, Vincent,” Jessica says firmly. “It’s not yours! Let go, Vincent!”

At 11, Jessica is skilled in the art of big-sister persuasion. Soon she convinces Vincent to take another toy and shut the door behind him as he happily leaves her alone in the bedroom. Having spent nearly half her life moving with her family through ten homeless shelters, a couple of apartments, and a park, Jessica’s learned a lot about getting along with a variety of people.

“You can get in lots of fights with people at shelters. I mean, this girl, she wanted to fight me. I just stayed away from people after that. Only reason I talk to people in here is because we have our own apartment and stuff,” she says.

“It depends what kind of people you get with, because some people are on drugs. This lady here tells this girl to give her money so she can go buy crack, or whatever. But if you get with people like Keisha, or Kenza, or people that I know, it’s OK.”

Jessica seems to like her current shelter, especially since her family’s been given the privacy of a two-bedroom “transitional” apartment. Her mother pays rent equal to 13 percent of her income. They’ve been able to collect a few accoutrements of American normalcy in the few months they’ve lived here, among them some more clothes, which means Jessica’s no longer taunted for wearing the same outfit to school every day. She plays with her new hamster on one of the twin beds pushed together in a corner of the small room she shares with her brothers.

“People are very cruel when they know you’re in a shelter,” she says. “They make smart remarks about your mother, like she can’t get a job, she can’t get an apartment or nothing.” Jessica doesn’t feel completely accepted at her new school. “Some in the class will make racial slurs ’cause I’m like the only light-skinned girl in the whole school,” she says. “It’s hard because, you know, I’m half black, right? But, you see, I’m kinda, like, light, right?”

Still, she prefers this school to her previous one. A couple classmates also live at the shelter, and the other kids don’t seem to care where she stays. “They say, ‘I know where you live. You live over in that big brown building.’ I say ‘Yeah,’ and then they just stop. It’s like it’s not that much trouble.”

She already has a group of friends, and she talks excitedly about the 70s-themed dance at school this weekend. She jumps up and runs to an otherwise empty closet to retrieve her outfit. It’s a long gray T-shirt dress with a black-and-white-trimmed V neck and a small Guess logo. Slits on each side reveal a little leg. She’ll wear it with a pair of white platform sneakers and silver butterfly barrettes with little springs that make the wings flutter whenever she moves.

Jessica, Robert, and their mother, Mary, became homeless around 1993. They’re now living with 23 other families at the shelter–which is always over capacity, according to its director.

The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that families account for 40 percent of the homeless population, its fastest-growing segment. Twenty-two thousand children under age 12 are homeless in Illinois. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless estimates there are about 12,000 to 15,000 homeless youths between the ages of 13 and 21 living in the city. Last year the coalition helped persuade Illinois legislators to add an extra $3 million to the state budget for homeless-youth programs. But that’s nowhere near the $14 million total it says is needed to begin to address the problem. Members have had less luck convincing city leaders of the severity of the situation, says Ellyn Harris, the coalition’s director of development.

“The city Department of Human Services doesn’t even fund homeless-youth programs,” she says. “They haven’t recognized it as a real large problem.”

One of the Bakers’ worst experiences was at a shelter that was nothing but floor mats in a church basement, one of several city-funded centers meant to house people for a day or two until they could be placed into more adequate shelters. In 1997 Mary Baker told the media how many families stayed at the overcrowded center for months at a time, braving backed-up sewage, roaches, rats, and spoiled food. All of the centers were subsequently closed down by the city.

“They’d been under investigation for a year,” Mary says, “but nobody would stand up.”

Baker credits the Coalition for the Homeless’s Women’s Empowerment Project with helping give her the strength to get her life together. Women in the group meet every Saturday to talk about their problems, provide moral support, and plan trips to City Hall and Springfield to lobby for more money for family and teen shelters.

“When I first became homeless, I was real depressed, like I wasn’t nothing. But now I know I am something and I can do whatever I put my mind to do,” Baker says. “If people stick together, instead of just one voice, it’s hundreds and hundreds.” Harris says Baker’s growing confidence in herself has led to similar changes in her children. “When we met them, they were in chaos,” she says. “Jessica seemed just depressed and alone.”

Baker speaks proudly of how Jessica helps care for her brothers. “I don’t ask her to do it. She just does. She’s very mature, beyond her age. That’s part of the homelessness. I mean, she shouldn’t have to deal with most of the problems she’s had to deal with.” Through it all Jessica has managed to maintain good grades, especially in science.

This Saturday runners and walkers will join Chicago Bears quarterback Erik Kramer at the Coalition for the Homeless’s second annual Erik Kramer 5K Run and Walk. The race will begin at 9 AM near the east entrance of Lincoln Park Zoo, 2200 N. Cannon Drive. Race-day registration is from 7:30 to 8:45; the $20 fee includes awards, refreshments, and an autograph session with Kramer. To volunteer or participate call 773-868-3010. –Nadia Oehlsen

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jessica Baker photo by J.B. Spector.