“I remember that we had a house, but I don’t remember where it was,” Cheryl Green says of her earliest years. (Like many of the names in this article, Cheryl Green is a pseudonym.) She remembers three rabbits her family kept in the basement; a side yard, with a tire swing her dad built; the frogs she and her brother would catch nearby and sell to kids in the neighborhood a dollar a frog.
Her parents split up when she was five. Her father visited a few times, but “it was always a fighting thing between him and my mother–‘Don’t come here and kidnap my kids,'” Cheryl says. Soon the visits stopped, and Cheryl hasn’t seen her father since.
Not long after her father moved out, Cheryl, her brother, and their mother moved to an apartment that Cheryl believes was on Chicago’s west side. Sometimes, Cheryl says, when her mother went on errands, she asked the woman across the hall to baby-sit. The woman’s boyfriend often came over, too. The woman would fall asleep, and the boyfriend would steal up to Cheryl’s bed, kiss her, and stick his hand down her panties.
Cheryl’s mother got involved with an abusive man. Sometimes her mother fled the apartment, the raging boyfriend on her heels, leaving the children unattended. This was when Cheryl was six, her brother seven. “We’d lock the doors and the [burglar] bars so wouldn’t nobody come in,” Cheryl says. Their mother usually returned after a few hours, but once when she was gone all night, a neighbor called the police. Cheryl and her brother wound up in a foster home in south-suburban Blue Island. A year later, a social worker told the children their mother had fallen ill and died. “I think they just wanted to keep us away from her,” Cheryl says.
The foster parents–call them the Johnsons–thrashed Cheryl regularly, particularly Mrs. Johnson. “She would hit you not in one place and not with one thing. She had a hollow pole. She used switches–long ones, the kind that wrapped around your body. Shoe heel, extension cords, ironing cords–whatever was in range. Sometimes she would get three or four things and whup us with this for a while, then whup us with that for a while.” Mrs. Johnson would tie Cheryl to a basement pole, or command her to stick her head in the slot between the seat and back of a chair, and then whup her. The many foster children the Johnsons took in sometimes were required to beat each other. For one punishment they had to eat hot peppers with nothing to wash them down. “You’d feel like sending them back up, but you knew–she already told you–if you send it back up, you gonna have to eat it back down again.” Mr. Johnson wasn’t as bent on whuppings as his wife, but when she insisted he knock some sense into the kids, he did as he was told. “And he was a big ol’ tall man, and he had some heavy hands, and that would not feel good.”
Cheryl, a diminutive, shy young woman of 22, is probably understating her foster parents’ brutality. They currently are serving life sentences for the torture-murder of one of their foster daughters, an 11-year-old who died of complications resulting from a beating to the head. The Johnsons pounded her with a board shortly before she died, according to testimony at their trial, and made her eat a bar of soap, forcing her to lick it up when she vomited. The girl had extensive bruises and scars on her wrists and ankles, apparently from being suspended frequently from a bedroom door in chains. There were bruises on her genitalia as well.
When Cheryl was 13 the Johnsons adopted Cheryl and her brother, but the cruelty continued. Twice Cheryl took an excess of sleeping pills and had to be rushed to a hospital. “I was thinking, ‘Was I just put down here to be treated like this? If so, I really don’t want to be here.'” She ran away from home when she was 16. At the police station where she ended up, she reluctantly told an officer what was happening at home. She was placed in a group home on the west side. She told the counselors there about the Johnsons. A week later, she was returned home. The whuppings intensified after that. Mrs. Johnson would say, “And you had the nerve to go to the police on me.”
In her mid-teens, Cheryl spent many hours at a boyfriend’s house. The boyfriend wasn’t as important to her as the sanctuary; his mother allowed her to stay overnight sometimes. “Things started to happen” between Cheryl and the boy, Cheryl says; she got pregnant at 17. The boyfriend made it clear that he was too young to be burdened by a baby; she would be raising the child on her own.
Cheryl’s pregnancy did not inhibit her foster mother. Cheryl remembers she’d whup her and say “I’m gonna knock that baby out of you.” Fearing a miscarriage, Cheryl checked herself into a south-side shelter for the homeless in the fall of 1986, when she was three months pregnant. She cried in the office: she dreaded living with a bunch of strangers. “I didn’t want to be there, but I didn’t want to be at home. I had to make a stand.” She was in her senior year of high school. Her boyfriend’s mother picked her up at the shelter each weekday morning and drove her to school at first; but the woman couldn’t keep this schedule up, and soon Cheryl dropped out.
After five months in the shelter, she moved in with a woman she met there who had taken an apartment on the west side. Cheryl and the woman “had confusions,” and shortly after her baby was born, in March 1987, Cheryl moved to a foster sister’s place. From there she went to her brother’s girlfriend’s, and from there to her aunt’s. The aunt helped buy her a bus ticket to Arkansas, where she stayed first with a former boyfriend’s relatives, then in a pair of shelters. She took a bus back to Chicago and moved in again with the aunt; then with a cousin; then with her brother. The people she stayed with were barely scraping by themselves; their imminent eviction was sometimes what forced her to move on–that, or “confusions” she had with them. She couldn’t afford an apartment of her own on her public-aid check.
In January 1988, at 19 years old, she moved into a large shelter for homeless women and their children on West 63rd Street. Most of her sheltermates were young homeless mothers like herself. Among these were two women, call them Debra Bates and Linda Carr. In this shelter, she also met a social worker named Anita Varon.
“I had a problem with my eyes when I was small,” Debra Bates says. “OK–just like I’m looking at you now–when I turn away, it look like I’m rolling my eyes at you. Whenever I turned away from somebody in church–‘Oh, she rolled her eyes at me.’ Soon as I get home–whup, whup, whup, whup. I don’t be meaning to roll my eyes. And I have a habit of, like I’m doing now, crossing my legs. My father hated for me to cross my legs. He used to whup me for that.” He would string her up on a pole in a closet in the family’s Cabrini-Green apartment and lash her with a belt or an extension cord. She and her brothers and sisters “would get beat like dogs just because of hollering out a window,” she says. “Now I don’t see what the whuppings were for, ’cause they didn’t do no good. They didn’t change us from doing what little kids do.”
Debra’s father struck her mother frequently, too: once, Debra recalls, when her mother was pregnant, he pinned her to the kitchen floor and kneed her repeatedly in the stomach, until Debra and her brothers and sisters pried him off.
(“He beat me more often when we first got married,” Debra’s mother tells me. “Then he stopped drinking, got in the church and supposedly got saved. That’s when he stopped abusing me and started abusing the children.”)
Debra was the second youngest of the seven kids in the family. Her siblings often made her fight the sister a year older than her on the living room floor. “I hated it–I was so puny, and I used to get beat up all the time.”
Her parents divorced when she was ten. Two years later, after the family had moved to a home on the south side, her relationship with her mother began to deteriorate. Disagreements escalated into shouting matches and culminated in beatings. (“Being a single parent and working two jobs, it’s possible I could have lost my temper with the children,” Debra’s mother says now. “But I never beat them unmercifully.”) When she was 13, Debra began sneaking out of the house after these battles. One time she stayed overnight at a friend’s; the next time she stayed away two days; then it was a full week. She was a junior in high school when she got pregnant. “I just wasn’t thinking,” she says.
The baby’s father had no interest in supporting Debra or the baby, financially or emotionally. Her mother cared for the child–call him Michael–while Debra was in school. It distressed Debra to see her mother usurping her role; she says this is why she dropped out of school her senior year, just two months before graduation. She moved to Milwaukee with Michael, to stay with her brother and his wife.
After four contentious months with her brother and sister-in-law, she says, they put her out. She spent a few weeks in a Milwaukee shelter before reluctantly returning to Chicago and her mother’s, in the fall of ’87. She was pregnant again.
A few months later, Michael, now two, suffered serious burns on his feet and legs when Debra put him in a bathtub of scalding water. Debra says she didn’t realize the water was so hot, and that she had been hampered by her condition of being seven months pregnant from immediately yanking her screaming son out of the water. The Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) investigated but did not find her culpable. Her mother and sisters did, though. One morning shortly after the incident, her mother told her to gather her clothes; she was taking her to a shelter. “She said I was rebellious, and that’s why I had to go,” Debra says, though she thinks her expulsion had more to do with what happened to Michael. They drove in silence to the shelter on 63rd.
But mostly Linda laments the way her mother ignored her. “I felt like she didn’t really care about me. My brothers and sisters all had curfews, but most of the time she let me come and go when I got ready. She taught them all how to help out around the house, but when I tried to clean up, she would just take the broom from me; when I tried to cook, she was like, ‘You just messed up my food.’ She wouldn’t let me do nothing no way, so I just stopped trying. If I did wrong, she would fuss at me and then call everybody on the phone–my sister, my auntie. All day long on the phone talking about me.”
Linda’s mother had six kids to clothe and feed and no one to help her. Linda’s father was unemployed, alcoholic, and married to someone else; he stayed with Linda’s family sometimes, but never came across with any money for the kids, four of whom were his. The father of the other two children had died when they were small. So Linda’s mother worked two jobs, which left her exhausted and irritable. Linda, the youngest daughter, would tiptoe up behind her and nuzzle her neck, and “she would push me away, say ‘Get outta here.'”
Linda was her father’s favorite, his “little princess,” as he called her. That didn’t win her points with her mother; Linda believes her mother’s rancor toward her ne’er-do-well father was released on her. The rancor deepened in 1978, when Linda’s mother found out she had breast cancer. Out of work for several months, the woman had to sell her house on the west side and move the family to Cabrini-Green. “All her friends thought it wasn’t no way she was supposed to end up there, with all the working she did,” Linda says. “She couldn’t understand it, either.”
When Linda was in her early teens, her mother dressed her up in high heels and suits and encouraged her to visit lounges with friends. She tried to hook her up with some older–employed–men. “Maybe she was trying to mature me because she knew she was gonna die,” Linda says. “But that really didn’t mature me.” She was 15 when she got pregnant.
When word got out she was expecting, everyone–including her father–“agreed with my mother that I was no good,” she says. She asked her 16-year-old boyfriend whether she should have the baby or get an abortion, and he urged her to have the baby. After she did he moved to Louisville with his folks.
Linda’s mother quit her job to care for the baby. “Everybody used to tell me my baby didn’t even know I was her mother–she just think that I was her big sister or something,” Linda says. Linda dropped out of school her junior year. “I got frustrated with how hard it was. I just wanted to be in the streets with my friends.” She had a second baby a year and a half after the first.
Cancer claimed her mother in ’83. Linda and her two kids had been sharing a Cabrini-Green flat with her father, her two younger brothers, and her boyfriend. Shortly before her mother’s death, an older sister living on the south side took in the brothers; after her mother died, her father moved out. Then her boyfriend left too. “One day it was a house full of people and the next day wasn’t nobody there,” she says. It was just Linda, two toddlers, and a welfare check.
She left Cabrini in ’85, just before delivering her third child, moving in with a friend who lived nearby. They didn’t get along, and Linda wound up spending a few days at the Pacific Garden Mission. She stayed with another friend, then another. Working day labor for several months, she saved up enough to rent an apartment on the north side; but then the building was sold and she was forced out five months after she moved in. A sister put the family up for a few days; then, in April ’86, she drove Linda and the kids to the shelter on 63rd.
Linda was 21 years old and pregnant with her fourth child. She cried incessantly her first several days in the shelter. “I was ashamed to be there, and I was scared. I didn’t have nobody. I was on my own with no one but these kids–and I still didn’t know much about taking care of them. I felt like if something good didn’t hurry up and happen, the world was going to come to an end.”
After six months in the shelter, she moved the family to a huge, decrepit apartment building on 79th Street, full of burned-out flats and swarming with mice and roaches. Linda attributed her frequent asthma attacks during her year in the building to the place’s condition.
In October ’87, fed up with that apartment but able to afford nothing better, Linda returned to the shelter on 63rd.
Anita Varon was the lady who brought the magazines on Fridays: that’s how she was known to many of the women who stayed in the shelter between 1986 and ’88.
A social worker for Travelers & Immigrants Aid, Varon had been assigned by that agency to visit the shelter once a week and provide counseling for those who wanted it. Most residents were reluctant to talk to her at first; Linda, for one, thought she might be a snoop for the shelter’s directors. Varon brought the women magazines and paperbacks, made small talk with them, helped them straighten out problems with public aid, and eventually won the confidence of many.
They had a need to talk, and often about more than the shame and depression they felt over living in a shelter. Debra still couldn’t comprehend the willingness of her own mother to put her out. Cheryl, who was living in the shelter when her adoptive parents were convicted of murdering their foster child, was struggling to cope with her ambivalence over that news: she was happy to see them punished, but pained by the knowledge that her parents were going to prison. Linda was still grieving over her mother’s death five years earlier. Through talking with Varon, she realized she was still angry at her mother for neglecting her. “Everybody thought my mother was the greatest woman that ever put her feet on the ground,” she says. “Who was I–one out of a thousand people–to say that my mother was not what I wanted her to be? Anita made me realize it was OK to say that.”
Linda almost quit talking to Varon early on. “She was making this tiger come out of me, it was like a roar–like you felt that you just wanted to holler and scream,” she says. “But Anita would say, ‘Linda, it gotta hurt first before it can feel good.'”
Over and over, Varon says, she heard accounts of abusive, rejecting parents–parents who convinced their children they were “not only unloved, but unlovable.”
Linda is tall and broad-shouldered, with a winning smile and a large heart (“generous to a fault,” Varon says). In a group, she exudes self-confidence: her booming voice and razor tongue can quickly get everyone roaring. But beneath that facade is a person all too aware of her own failings. “Maybe I should not even exist,” she says. “It isn’t like my parents created no great accomplishment.”
Cheryl, at five feet tall and barely 100 pounds, is called “Tiny” by an aunt, a nickname that suits her but doesn’t thrill her. She has a fuse that blows occasionally, but most of the time the impression she gives is of a person trying to take up as little space as possible. Her voice is toneless and you have to strain to hear it. What she has to say is frequently perceptive and witty, but she usually presumes that whoever she’s with would rather be somewhere else. “Lot of times I just have this feeling–I don’t even have to know the person, they can just be sitting across from me, and I just know she don’t like me. I don’t have too much trust in anybody–I can love a person and still doubt them. It just be a lot of negative thoughts going through my mind–that they be trying to get over one way or another.”
Debra’s girlish features seem at odds with her sullen disposition. She has moments when her eyebrows arch, her walnut eyes dance, and a mischievous grin sneaks out, as she lights up a room with a story. But before long an air of resignation settles back over her. “Seems like there’s always something bad waiting for me around the corner,” she says.
The women’s low self-regard inevitably contributes to their constant failure to improve their situations.
“I’m not a very patient person,” Debra says. “I will give up in a second.”
Cheryl says she has to “hype myself up to do anything. Every once in a while I can make a stand, say ‘I’m gonna really do it this time.’ It’ll last for a while. Then I’ll just give up and accept the situation the way it is. I’ll say, ‘Well, something bad’s gonna happen anyway, so–let it happen.'”
Life in the shelter on 63rd did little to ease anxieties or elevate self-esteem. The women and their children slept in two large barracks-style rooms; the toilet stalls were about the only places affording privacy. Maybe the setting necessitated the numerous rules of conduct–but not the manner in which the rules were enforced. According to Linda, “The staff members talked to you like you were a child.”
The women observed with dismay their children’s difficulties in adjusting to shelter life: their problems sleeping, their increased bed-wetting and misbehavior. Debra’s son Michael drank bleach from a bottle that had been left out in an area where kids regularly played. He was hospitalized three days, but suffered no permanent injury. “Some of my son’s toys got broken up, some of his clothes got stolen,” she says. “I’d catch other women’s kids beating up on him–all sorts of arguments and confusion. I was thinking I shouldn’t be putting him through this–he deserved more.”
She gave birth to her second child while living at the shelter. “I hated bringing a newborn baby into a shelter,” she says. “I was hoping to find an apartment before I had her so I could bring her to a nice, warm home, without a lot of hollering and screaming of other kids and other babies.”
Varon was struck by the isolation of the women she met in the shelter: they tended to have few relatives or friends who were willing or able to help them weather a crisis. That’s why they ended up in shelters, she figured, while other equally poor women did not.
A study published in 1988 in the American Journal of Public Health reached a similar conclusion. The study compared women in shelters with other poor women, and found the support networks of the homeless women to be far inferior. The homeless women were also much more likely to report having been abused as children. The researchers speculated that these two differences were related, since many studies have shown abuse in childhood to hinder adult relationships. While more affordable housing and better welfare programs are critical, the researchers said, so are programs that help the homeless build supportive relationships.
Varon, unaware of the study, was forming her own small-scale plan to help homeless women build supportive relationships. Despite the unrelenting air of suspicion and tension among sheltermates, she had noted also an intense closeness that developed among some of them. The women had plenty in common: they were by and large young, black, poor, single high school dropouts. And, she says, they “understood what it felt like to be homeless like no one else could.” When women who had left the shelter later returned, Varon discovered it was not always economic hardship that drove them back, but rather “how alone they felt out in the world and how they missed the affection and bonds they had had there.”
Shelters, Varon thought, ought to capitalize on the bonds that form within their walls. She tried to start a support group but it died aborning. Shelter staff didn’t have the time or energy for such niceties as nurturing friendships among sheltermates; providing housing and food for them was daunting enough.
In mid-1988, after a dispute with the directors, Varon was told her services at the shelter were no longer desired. (Varon says she thought the directors treated residents too harshly; they thought she coddled them.) But Varon kept in touch with some of the women she had met, including Cheryl, Debra, and Linda. When they all left the shelter, in 1988, Varon started getting them together–for shopping trips, to do laundry, for pizza. (Two sisters we’ll call Cory and Jean Hawkins joined some of the group’s activities, but Cheryl, Debra, and Linda were the principal members.)
Varon encouraged the women to discuss their problems with each other. She wanted them to learn “that someone felt they were important enough to help when they were in need.” Varon knew she would have to facilitate the group’s gatherings at first, but hoped that eventually the women could function as a group on their own.
If the women benefited, so would their children, she thought; this was one of her chief goals. “You want to interrupt the cycle,” she says, “do something so the children don’t wind up experiencing the craziness their mothers did.”
Advocates for the homeless often maintain that attention should be focused on economic issues–unemployment, a lack of decent, affordable housing, a miserly welfare system. Analysis of the individuals usually leads to victim blaming, they say.
Varon believes homelessness results from a combination of ills, and she doesn’t think it’s wise to ignore some of these ills–like abysmal parenting, and the difficulties with self-esteem and relationships that ensue.
Varon wasn’t expecting miracles. “I knew change would be a lengthy, evolving process,” she says. She hoped the women would at least change enough “so they wouldn’t make homelessness a life-style.”
I’ve kept tabs on Cheryl, Debra, and Linda for more than two years now. The following is an account of how they’ve fared, individually and as a group, since leaving the shelter in ’88.
In recent years, social service activists have frequently reminded us that homeless people are not all skid row winos or bag ladies. Indeed, the surge in homelessness in this country is primarily among families, inevitably families headed by young women: they’ve gone from an insignificant proportion of the homeless to at least a third in the last decade.
Perhaps the concept of homelessness needs broadening still: for every person sleeping in an airport or a park, there are many families who, for myriad reasons, move from place to place to place; people who change addresses like other people change channels. For most of the time since they left the shelter in ’88, Cheryl, Debra, and Linda have not been technically homeless. But that doesn’t mean they’ve given homelessness the slip: you can have a roof over your head, with nothing solid under your feet.
April 1988: One morning the director of the shelter orders Linda to gather her things and leave by day’s end. “This girl [a sheltermate], she didn’t like me, right?” Linda tells me. “It was like she always had it in for me. She said I had cursed at my kids the night before, which was not true!” But Linda had had other run-ins with the director–and so the director gave her the thumb.
The gregarious 23-year-old doesn’t know where she and her four kids, ranging in age from 21 months to seven years, will stay the night. She could call her sister on the south side–she owns a home and has taken them in for brief periods before; but this sister never hesitates to berate Linda for her failings, and Linda is in no hurry to tell her sister she’s been booted out of a shelter. Besides, this is not yet a crisis: she has nearly $1,000 in cash in her pocket–money she has saved from her welfare checks while staying here.
She feels more relieved than panicked when she and her children depart the shelter early in the evening. No more shrill wake-up calls. No more curfews. No more harangues on how to handle her kids.
She meets her friend Mary on the sidewalk out front, as the two had arranged. Mary recently moved out of this shelter, and she and her three young children also are without a place. The two women and the seven kids walk west on 63rd. “Where we walking to?” Linda asks Mary.
“We just walking,” Mary says.
“Mary, I ain’t never been walking somewhere, didn’t know where I was going,” Linda says. “Seems like we just walking to nowhere.”
The nine of them end up in one room of the Roberts Motel, about a mile west of the shelter on 63rd. Linda and Mary begin hunting for apartments the next morning. Whenever Linda tells a landlord she has four kids, he shakes his head and shuts the door. Ten days after leaving the shelter, desperation is beginning to set in: the $33-a-day motel room is sucking up her savings.
Then she finds a one-bedroom flat on 71st Street; the landlord is willing to rent to her despite her four kids. Rent is $265, the security deposit another $265; Linda can see she will have hardly any money left to buy a stove and a refrigerator, let alone furniture. Mary is still looking for a place; so Linda and Mary decide to pool their resources and share the apartment.
July 1988: Cheryl and her 15-month-old daughter, Gwen, leave the shelter. Her boyfriend, Edward, has arranged for them to stay with him at his uncle’s apartment in the Ickes Homes, a high-rise public housing project at 22nd and State.
Last month, the shy 19-year-old learned she was pregnant again. She’s due in February; by that time, she hopes she and Edward will have a place of their own. She isn’t wild about taking her baby daughter to live in a high-rise project now, but she prefers it to remaining in the shelter.
Two weeks after they move in, a dispute erupts between Edward and his uncle. Edward, 22, unemployed and on welfare, moves back home with his parents. Cheryl and Gwen check into Clara’s House, another south-side shelter.
August 1988: Debra learns of an apartment on South Normal that she probably can afford on her $342 aid check. Its only room (besides the bathroom) is furnished with a stove, a refrigerator, and a Murphy bed. Rent is $240, heat and electricity included; and the landlord will accept just $100 as a security deposit.
The flat is one of dozens in a menacing four-story structure that abuts an even larger abandoned building. Debra’s mother and an older sister urge her not to take the flat, but she is uncharacteristically optimistic. “They don’t like the way the building looks,” the dark-eyed 19-year-old tells me. “But they aren’t helping me find an apartment. They aren’t helping me do anything.” Her two children are just 18 months and 4 months old now; that’s why many of her sheltermates also advise her against renting the apartment–they think she’ll go crazy, cooped up in that one room with her two little ones. But the shelter is driving her crazy as it is; so early in August, she and her kids move in on Normal.
September 1988: Cheryl, anxious again to escape shelter life, calls Debra and asks if she and Gwen can stay with her awhile.
Debra, craving adult company, says yes without hesitation. She’s glad to be in a position to provide help for once. “Cheryl’s been in too many shelters–I feel sorry for her,” she tells me. “And who knows? I might need help again one day.”
October 1988: The boiler in Linda’s building doesn’t work, and the landlord has no plans to repair or replace it. With winter looming, Linda knows she has to move.
Life on 71st Street has been no picnic. She had looked forward to the tranquillity of an apartment after the chaos of the shelter, but with seven kids in three rooms, it had been like moving into a day-care center. “My kids is OK when they’re just with me,” she says. “But when they’re together with Mary’s kids, they be bad, and I be really upset, ready to cry. All they do is fight and argue and pound the walls all day long.”
Linda and Mary would send the kids out to the alley to play whenever possible. In the evening, the mothers took turns kneeling over the bathtub, scrubbing the filth from the kids’ clothes. After they fed the kids, they bathed them, blocking out their howls over the frigid water–the building’s water heater was out of commission too. They washed the dishes–also with cold water–and got the kids down, on two beds alongside each other on the back porch. Invariably, one or two of the children were restless, disturbing the others.
So when Linda and Mary had a big blowup in July, and Mary and her three kids moved out, Linda wasn’t too upset. For a couple of months, she actually enjoyed the apartment. But now the temperature is dropping.
She learns of a two-bedroom flat for rent on South Kenwood. It’s in a run-down building on a desolate street, and rent is only $325–cheap for a two-bedroom. (But it won’t leave much out of Linda’s $452 aid check.) The landlord wants two months’ rent for a security deposit with the first month’s rent–$975 in all. Linda has $400. Varon convinces her agency to loan Linda one month’s rent, and Linda’s boyfriend gives her another $325. Late in October she moves into the place on Kenwood.
November 1988: Varon tells Cheryl about a kitchenette apartment on Drexel in a well-maintained courtyard building. Rent is $240. Cheryl talks it over with Edward, who is still living with his folks. Between his $154 a month from General Assistance and her $250 from Aid to Families with Depdendent Children (AFDC), they feel they can afford the place.
Cheryl thanks Debra for putting her up, and on a Saturday in early November she moves into the Drexel flat. Of her innumerable addresses the past two years, there were none she could call her own. Pride swells in her when her name goes up on a mailbox in the lobby.
December 1988: Debra, suffering pain in her lower back and having missed a period, goes to a hospital for a checkup. She has a kidney infection, the doctor says, and she is pregnant again.
Another baby is the last thing Debra needs; it already seems like feeding kids and changing diapers is all she ever does. She’s getting tired of their crying; there’s no escaping it in this tiny apartment. She’s also vexed by Michael’s lack of cooperation with toilet training. (He’s not quite two, but Debra thinks he’s plenty old enough to be avoiding accidents.)
At least when Cheryl lived with her, she had someone to talk to, to play cards with. She isn’t fond of the people in her building. “They try to use you to get things,” she tells me. “They come knocking on your door–‘Do you have this? Can I borrow this? Can I have that? Can I use this?’ And if you the only one with a phone in the building [which Debra is]–‘Can I use your phone please?’ Knocking on your door day and night, day and night–it just gets on your nerves.” She made the mistake of lending money to a woman down the hall once; now the woman constantly wants more. Debra has considered moving, “But every apartment I look at, they ask for one month’s security. I ask, ‘Can I put this much down on it?’ ‘No, we want straight security and rent.’ That’s over $600 the first month. I can’t afford that.”
Her boyfriend Al visits occasionally. But Debra isn’t sure he’ll be pleased when she tells him she’s pregnant. He’s the father, she says; but Debra wonders whether he’ll be willing to assume any responsibility for the child. It angers her that men can just take a hike if they choose. “I gotta feed and bathe this child, he don’t. I gotta cook and clean, he don’t. He can go out and do whatever he want, don’t have a care in the world. But the woman is stuck with that child for life.”
Why did Cheryl, Debra, and Linda have children so early?
“I wanted a baby for all the wrong reasons,” Linda says. “I wanted somebody to play with and to hold, and ’cause they looked so cute.”
As a teenager, she says, she had a vague sense of “something missing” in her life. She now feels it was the love and affection of her mother. What her mother didn’t provide, she hoped a baby would. “You know how people think a baby is so sweet and cuddly, and they’re always gonna love you and be there for you. Until you have one, and then you find out.
“My mother asked me if I wanted an abortion,” she says. “But I didn’t know what an abortion was. She should have said, ‘Linda, you is too young, you don’t know nothing about no babies, and if you have this abortion you can go on back to school.'”
After she had that first child she took birth control pills. But her next boyfriend wanted to have a baby with her; so he sometimes crushed her pills with his foot, and she got pregnant again.
Shortly after she got pregnant the third time she “bingoed for $500,” and considered using the winnings for an abortion. But she thought abortions were dangerous and painful. She asked her younger brother to stand on her stomach, but the miscarriage she hoped to induce did not occur. She contemplated aborting her fourth pregnancy, too. But her finances at the time dictated a choice between an abortion and an apartment of her own. She chose the apartment.
She had a tubal ligation after her fourth was born. “I love my kids and everything, but I should have waited until I got to be like 25,” she says. “I should have finished school, and found a nice job. Then my babies could have had a nice backyard with some swings, instead of just playing out there in the street.”
Cheryl attributes her first pregnancy to “the arguments I was having with my mother,” which pushed her out of her adoptive parents’ house and closer to her boyfriend.
She has been pregnant twice since. (She miscarried once.) “Sometimes I be thinking my body was weak for attention,” she says, “for something I wasn’t getting at home.” Why didn’t she take more precautions, in terms of contraceptives? “It was probably the fact of not really caring. It was not something I worried about. It just didn’t seem important.”
She opposes abortion. “If God didn’t mean for you to have them, you wouldn’t have got pregnant,” she says. And unlike Linda, she prefers not to say she erred in becoming a parent so early. “If you feel like, ‘Man, I shouldn’t have had these kids, this was a mistake, I don’t want ’em’–then I think something might happen. Either something will happen and the state might take them from you, or God might take them from you. I am happy that Gwen is here. I will be happy to have this baby. And I think that I am just crazy enough that if I have another one, I’ll be happy that it is here.”
“I just wasn’t thinking,” Debra says of her pregnancies.
She wishes her neglectful mother had talked to her about sex “so I wouldn’t have had to go out there and learn on my own.”
She hid her first pregnancy from her mother as long as she could: her mother didn’t realize she was pregnant until she was four months along–too late for an abortion. Debra didn’t want one anyway. Her mother “gave me things to flush the baby out–certain kinds of pills–but I would just pretend to take them.”
The three women don’t try to hide their animosity toward the men who fathered their children.
“When they get a woman pregnant, they leave her before the baby’s born, it never fails,” Debra says.
Says Cheryl, “Some come in your face and tell you, ‘That’s not my child, don’t even look like me.’ I don’t know how they can be like that. I mean the child is not only a part of me–it’s a part of them, too.”
Cheryl doesn’t believe in trying to squeeze child support out of an unwilling father. “It’s a waste of time trying to get somebody to give you something they don’t wanna give you,” she says. Linda brought the father of her three kids to court a couple years ago, but she didn’t follow through and the effort went for naught. Debra, too, has allowed the fathers of her children off the hook. “When you go out with somebody, you got to get his social security number, in case they up and leave you with a child. But I didn’t know that at the time.”
Men are also hopeless cheats, the women will tell you. “I haven’t found one yet that’s willing to be honest,” Linda says. “I’m the type of person that might give them enough room to do what they’re gonna do. But–you don’t have to do it across the street! You can at least go somewhere else.”
“All of them have bad habits,” Cheryl says. “Some are just worser than others. Some will deal with another lady right in front of your face, whereas others may look at your feelings, and do it behind your back.”
December 1988: Anita Varon organizes a holiday party for the women in the group. It is hosted by Jean and Cora Hawkins, who are living at their mother’s house on South Aberdeen. Linda can’t attend, but Cheryl and Edward come with Gwen, and Debra brings her children, Michael and Sheila. Kids and grown-ups alike are dressed smartly. Varon brings a turkey and Jean and Cora roast it.
At first, it seems like the kids are the only ones enjoying themselves. There are long, awkward pauses in the women’s conversation. Gradually, though, everyone relaxes: the music is turned up, and stories about life in the shelter on 63rd are related, to loud laughter.
Varon says little, staying in the background snapping pictures. She plans to gather Cheryl, Debra, and Linda one day and give them each a photo album and a pile of pictures, and watch them assemble a family album. These albums, she hopes, will remind the women “that although they may not have much from where they came from, they don’t have to be like little orphans–that they’re moms and they have families and friends.”
One of the photos she takes this afternoon–of Edward with Gwen in one arm and the other wrapped around Cheryl–will become Cheryl’s favorite. Varon also snaps a shot of Debra holding Sheila, the teething eight-month-old sucking on her lip, her chubby fingers protruding from her mother’s hand. Debra will be effusively grateful several days later when Varon gives her the picture, the only one she has of Sheila.
January 1989: At about nine in the morning on January 12, Debra frantically dials 911. “My baby isn’t breathing!” she tells the man who answers.
The paramedics carry Sheila down to the ambulance while Debra tries to dress Michael. He needs a diaper change, he needs clothes; she can’t remember where anything is. “Just go–I’ll take care of him,” a neighbor says.
At the hospital, she sits in a waiting room for about an hour, crying, praying, before the doctors come to tell her Sheila has died. “How come you couldn’t help her breathe? she screams. “You supposed to be doctors.”
Sheila had had a nasty chest cold for about a week before her death, Debra will tell me later. She was giving her cough medicine three times a day. “I thought that would be enough. You can’t keep running back and forth to the doctor just for little things.”
Sheila and Michael usually slept together on a pallet on the floor. The night before Sheila’s death, Debra had put Sheila in her own bed because of her chest cold; she thought Sheila would stay warmer. She gave her a dose of the cough medicine and put her down at the head of the bed; Debra laid down at the other end, nearer the phone. “Sometimes Sheila would cry herself to sleep and sometimes she wouldn’t,” Debra will say. “On that particular night, I thought she would.” It was a long time before the crying ceased.
The phone woke her around eight the next morning, she will tell me: it was one of her sisters. Shortly after she hung up from that conversation, another sister called. “After I had talked to her, I noticed the blanket was over my baby, so I pulled it off,” Debra will say. “And when I picked her up, her arms just flopped back. I pinched her to see if she’d cry or something. And I shook her, and she wouldn’t wake up.” That’s when she called 911.
Debra stays at her mother’s the first few days after Sheila’s death. The first day her family is sympathetic and consoling. The inquisition begins the second day. “It was the same thing over and over again–‘What happened?’ And I’m steady trying to tell them what happened. I said, ‘Just because Michael got burned last year, you think I killed my baby?’ I felt like was nobody on my side, there was nobody to help me get through all this pain.”
A DCFS caseworker reaches her at her mother’s. He says she will have to relinquish custody of Michael until the medical examiner’s office completes an investigation into the cause of Sheila’s death. He plans to place Michael in a foster home. Debra’s mother asks if she can keep Michael for the interim instead. The caseworker agrees to this. The idea of her mother taking custody of her son is hard for Debra to stomach, but she doesn’t want him staying with strangers–so she consents to the arrangement.
The funeral is held on January 17 at a far-south-side chapel. Cheryl, Linda, Cory, and Jean, dressed in their best clothes, ride in Varon’s Chevy to the chapel.
Debra wears an elegant black suit, which Varon recently inherited from an aunt.
Debra’s mother sits front and center at the service, while Debra is relegated to the far end of the row. Some relatives pass Debra by without a word, then hug her mother sympathetically. Varon and the women from the shelter, sitting in the rear of the chapel, notice this and exchange glances. In his eulogy, the minister reminds the assembled of the painful loss Debra’s mother has suffered. “We’re all here today to support this grieving grandmother,” he says.
“I’m not–I’m here for Debra,” a voice calls out from the rear of the chapel, turning heads. It’s Linda, incensed at how Debra is being ignored. “They were acting like Debra did not even exist,” she will tell me later.
After the funeral Varon and the other women (except for Debra) have pizza at a south-side restaurant, and grouse about how Debra was treated at the funeral. They seem to realize, Varon tells me later, that it’s support not judgment that Debra needs at this point. “They know she has problems, but they accept her for what she is, and they try to help her do better.”
“It hurted that my family was not there when I needed them,” Debra will tell me. “But it helped knowing I had friends who cared about what I was going through.” Just a few days before Sheila died, Varon had given Debra a five-by-seven of the photo of Debra and Sheila from the holiday party. The photo is in the casket next to Sheila when the casket is closed. “I didn’t want her to be alone,” Debra tells Varon.
Debra doesn’t want to return to the apartment where her daughter died, so after the funeral she continues to stay at her mother’s house. Two days later, one of Debra’s sisters starts grilling her again, asking her how hard she shook Sheila. Debra stomps out. She wanders around outside, ending up in the field behind the grammar school she attended. The night is cold and clear; she stares up at the stars. “I was wondering if Sheila was up there with my grandmother, my godmother, my cousin,” she says later. “I was thinking, was one of those stars her? Was she looking down at me?”
It is after midnight when she returns to her mother’s house. The front door is locked. Through the door, her mother hollers that she should go back to her own apartment.
She spends a sleepless night in Michael’s bed, trying unsuccessfully not to replay in her mind the hours leading up to Sheila’s death. “My mother just didn’t understand why I wanted to give up that apartment,” Debra will tell me. “But when somebody dies, and you’re there where that person had died, it don’t do nothing but bring back memories.”
She calls Varon the next morning. Varon calls Cheryl: Can Debra stay with her awhile? Certainly, Cheryl says.
February 1989: Cheryl gives birth to her second child, a healthy girl, early in the morning of February 15, at Cook County Hospital.
I visit Cheryl in her apartment on Drexel two weeks later. Edward is cradling the baby, Annette, on a mattress in the living room when I arrive, coaxing her to sleep. Cheryl’s older daughter, Gwen, almost two, is staying with Cheryl’s brother in North Carolina. He and his wife have offered to keep Gwen for a few weeks while Cheryl adjusts to the new baby. Cheryl looks weary, and I ask her if the baby has been difficult. No, Annette has been easy to care for, she says. What’s got her down is that they’re probably going to have to move again soon. They’ve fallen behind in rent, and her landlord has begun eviction proceedings.
They fell behind after Cheryl’s welfare check was cut, in December, from $250 to $95. Cheryl had missed an appointment with public aid’s Bureau of Child Support Enforcement, so she had been determined “noncooperative.” Cheryl says she never got the letter advising her of the appointment. She guesses it was sent to a former address and not forwarded.
In a class action suit filed by the Legal Assistance Foundation on behalf of AFDC clients, a federal judge ruled in 1989 that public aid was not giving recipients clear and ample notice of what they had to do to be cooperative with the child support effort. Thousands of Illinois AFDC recipients had had their grants slashed in the 80s when public aid deemed that they weren’t cooperating with its attempts to establish paternity and obtain child support from absent parents. It often took many months for a recipient to be returned to her normal grant level. Public aid has since changed its policies.
Debra moved out two weeks ago, Cheryl says. She’s now staying at her boyfriend Al’s mother’s place on South Michigan.
The group has been getting together almost every Friday lately. “We go get pizza, or go to McDonald’s or Burger King,” Cheryl says. “If it’s warm enough, we might take the kids to the park and sit and eat. We find out each other’s situations and try to help each other. And sometimes we don’t have bad situations, so we enjoy the day better. We just eat and laugh and talk and have fun.”
Varon is “sort of a substitute mother for all of us,” Cheryl says. “‘Cause she’s the one that’s there for us most of the time. She gives us the most attention. She gives us respect–and when anybody gives you respect, you want to give them the same thing in return.
“Anita knows the levels I want to reach in life. And she’s always saying she knows I can do it. It’s giving me more confidence. I’ve never had any doubts about Anita–I know she is trying to help me as a true friend. Sometimes I feel like she might be a little closer to the others than to me–but that’s all.”
After Annette dozes off, Edward rises from the mattress and begins playing Nintendo on a small TV in the living room, the beeps filling pauses in our conversation. I ask Cheryl how they could afford Nintendo when they’re having such money troubles. “Just because we’re poor doesn’t mean we got to always live like we’re poor,” she says. “We got to have some way of getting away from things and having fun.”
February 1989: Linda’s landlord wants her out.
There are too many people living in her apartment, he says. (Linda’s friend Mary and her kids have been visiting often; frequently, they stay the night.)
In December the landlord said she could remain two more months, until her security deposit was exhausted. Varon kept urging Linda to meet with him to try to get him to change his mind, but Linda resisted. She may be loud and rambunctious with friends, but given the choice of asserting herself to a person of authority or moving, Linda will usually start packing. “When certain people make me feel bad, I just cannot talk to them,” she says. “He had said he wanted me to move. That sort of hurt my feelings. So I didn’t want to get in his face, you know–I figured I would just go ahead and move.”
She looks haggard the morning I visit her. Besides this threat of eviction, the incessant concern over money is wearing her down, she says. Her youngest, Felicia, turns three in July, and so will be eligible for the public preschools in the fall; Linda thinks maybe then she will return to school to earn her high-school-equivalency certificate. Then she’d like to take some computer courses and try to get a decent job, she says, because a family of five will never get far on $452 a month.
In the meantime, “I try to do the best I can, because I hate when somebody categorize me,” she says. “Everybody have this negative thing about a young girl with a house full of babies, that all they do is sit up and watch soap operas and keep a nasty house. My main thing is to try to make my kids happy–to make sure they’re fed and bathed, and have nice, decent things. I feel like I done come a long way. I been doing this since I was 19, and I started out didn’t know nothing.”
She suffers frequent headaches and occasional asthma attacks. She can’t afford a phone, and worries she might start wheezing so badly one night that she won’t make it to the pay phone on the corner to call a taxi for the hospital. Nightmares are common. Last week, she dreamed her oldest daughter had been raped; earlier this week, that she was trying to find a pair of scissors with which to kill herself. “I don’t never have no good dreams,” she says.
She and the kids shiver through the night, because the landlord dispenses heat grudgingly; but after her last apartment, Linda is satisfied with any heat at all. She cooks the family’s meals over a hot plate or in her electric frying pan–because the landlord won’t make himself available to unlock the basement door so the gas company can turn on the gas for the stove. There are roomy closets in the apartment, but Linda can’t hang anything in them, because they lack rods and hooks. She doesn’t complain about the closets, but they irritate Varon, who sees them reflecting the chaos in Linda’s life. “It seems like a trivial thing, but they cause so many problems,” Varon tells me. “So many times I’ve heard her go crazy because she has to get somewhere, and one of the kids has only one shoe–the other one is hiding, it’s buried.”
At the end of the month, Varon again rescues Linda. She makes an appointment for both of them with the landlord. Linda can stay, he says, if she resumes paying rent and gives him at least $25 extra each month toward reestablishing her security deposit. She gives him $400 for the coming month.
A friend of Varon’s installs rods in Linda’s closets. The landlord lets the gas company into the basement one afternoon. Linda and the children bake cookies to celebrate.
March 1989: “It’s like I’m going in circles,” Debra says, on a weekday morning early in the month.
We’re sitting on a frayed sofa in the living room of a stuffy, dim three-room flat stuck in the rear of a graystone on South Michigan. Debra is staying here with a friend of Al’s. She moved here three days ago–her sixth move in the last four weeks. She’s gone from Al’s mother’s apartment on South Michigan, to a west-side flat rented by friends of Al’s; back to his mother’s; back to Cheryl’s; to Jean and Cory’s; and now here, down the street from Al’s mother’s. Six moves, and she’s less than a block from where she began. Some of her clothes are here, some down the street, some still on the west side.
She left Al’s mother’s because she wasn’t getting along with his brothers. She left the apartment on the west side because she felt uncomfortable living in an unfamiliar area of the city.
She was at Cheryl’s for two weeks. She left because she felt friction building between Cheryl and Edward and thought she might be the cause of it–though she prefers not to be more specific. (For her part, Cheryl will only say that “we went through a bad ordeal that kind of slacked up our friendship. I would never deny Debra anything; I would try to help her again. But I don’t think I’d let her stay with me.”)
She left Jean and Cory’s after four days, when their mother told her she had to go–why, she says she doesn’t know. (Jean and Cory say their mother was irked by Debra’s unwillingness to help with housework.)
She is looking for an apartment of her own, but finding few available in her price range. “When I do find an apartment, somebody snatches it right out from under me,” she says. “‘Cause I was fitting to get this attic apartment for $135. I talked to them on Friday, and they wasn’t in the office on Saturday or Sunday, so I called them Monday–and they told me somebody took it already.” She shrugs. “Maybe when this next check comes I’ll be able to afford something. I don’t want to always be a burden on people.”
Sheila’s death “is really setting me back,” she says. “When somebody dies that you care about, you just go downhill.”
She has been trying not to dwell on the loss of her baby. What has filled her thoughts night and day is how her mother has turned her back on her during this crisis. Her face tensing and her voice rising, she says, “I know that if my kids ever need a place to stay–they could be a hundred and three–even if my house is overcrowded with people, there will always be room–’cause, see, there’s a floor, there’s a living room couch. I’m not gonna turn my kids out the door. I’m not gonna tell them you can’t come back if you leave. I’m always gonna say, “If you need me, come see me.’
“My mother told me when I had Michael that you supposed to have mother instincts. Like if Michael fell down the stairs, I’m supposed to jump and rush to him and pick him up. But–where are her mother instincts?”
A week later, Edward’s parents offer to let Edward, Cheryl, and Annette stay with them in their town house on the far south side. They move out of the apartment on Drexel a day or two before the sheriff’s deputies would have moved them out.
In the living room of the town house, Cheryl tells me how discouraged she feels over not managing to keep the Drexel apartment longer. “Every time you move you tell yourself this is the last time–this is the place you’re gonna stay for quite a while. I guess it just wasn’t time.”
Edward’s parents treat them fine, she says, but “ain’t nothing like having your own place. Even if the people you’re staying with are nice, there are gonna be days when, if they’re married, they want their house alone. You’re gonna feel a whole lot of negative vibes on those days.”
Annette is healthy and still very little trouble. Cheryl is breast-feeding her. Hardly any of the young mothers she knows nurses, but Cheryl has heard it is better for the baby than formula feeding. “I figure if you got the milk there, you might as well use it,” she says. She misses Gwen, who is still in North Carolina. She expects her brother or sister-in-law to bring her back to Chicago in a week or two.
She applied recently with the Chicago Housing Authority for an apartment. Her name went on a waiting list. She was told that probably within a couple of months, she would be offered a unit in the south-side high-rise project Stateway Gardens. Cheryl knows that shootings and stabbings and muggings are common at Stateway. On the other hand, rent will be less than $100. “Everybody says it’s a pitiful project,” she says. “I don’t at all like the idea of staying there. But I can’t afford anything else right now.” At least her aid check has returned to its proper level ($342 for a mother with two children).
Edward, a graduate of Calumet High School, is studying computer programming downtown three mornings a week. Cheryl says the school guarantees graduates a job. He should finish the program in October. They’ve talked about getting married, but Cheryl says they both want to wait until they’re on firmer financial ground.
If Cheryl had a close relative in town who could watch her kids regularly, she tells me, she would look for a job right now. She would like to work as a seamstress; her adoptive mother taught her a lot about sewing. She also feels capable of work as a receptionist, a typist, or a child-care provider. Eventually, she will find someone to baby-sit her kids so she can work, she says; but not until her children are a little older. She has vowed to protect her children from the kind of abuse she endured growing up; that means not consigning them to a sitter just yet. “You can’t trust everybody with your child. Things happen–and they’re not old enough to tell what happens. So I just have to be patient. I need the job–but for their sake, I can wait.”
March 1989: On a rainy Tuesday, Linda, Cheryl, and Debra again get dressed up for a burial service–this one for a former sheltermate.
“Cocoa,” as she was known, had died in Cook County Hospital a week earlier of AIDS, at the age of 34. A streetwalker and a cocaine addict, she had been without close friends in the shelter. But the women did not hesitate when Varon suggested they attend her funeral. “She had been a homeless person like them, and so they felt for her,” Varon says. Cocoa’s death also has unnerved the women, Varon believes. “It may be a warning to them that if they don’t work awfully hard, their lives too might end without much joy.”
This time the parlor is on the north side. Jean, Cory, Mary, and all their children join Linda, Debra, Cheryl, and Annette for the excursion. Half of the group crams into Varon’s car, and half into mine.
When we arrive at the parlor a receptionist casually informs us that the funeral service has been postponed until tomorrow. Varon moans–they’ve gotten all dressed up and made the trip for nothing. But among the other women there are mainly shrugs. “Oh, well–we used to waiting,” Linda says.
Several of the women won’t be able to make tomorrow’s service, so the group decides to continue its gathering this afternoon. Under thunder and lightning and a sudden deluge, we race to the cars and head for a nearby pizzeria.
Busboys push together several tables in a back room of the restaurant to accommodate the eight adults and nine children. Varon orders two extra-large thin-crust pizzas and two pitchers of Coke.
Cocoa’s name is mentioned just a few times in the restaurant, and the mood around the table is festive, not somber. “Having a profound dialogue isn’t the purpose of getting together,” Varon will tell me later. “The purpose is that they not feel alone, not have to return immediately to their separate corners.”
“Did you hear Oprah is looking for a three-generation welfare family?” Jean asks. There are snickers around the table. Cheryl says, “Who’s gonna admit they poor, their mother poor, their grandmother poor?”
Annette, now a month old, naps in Cheryl’s arms, Cheryl rocking her subtly. The other children sit at the far end of the table, fiddling with their silverware and water cups, chatting. Their mothers ignore them, save for scolding them sharply when they occasionally squirm out of their chairs. The women make considerably more noise, regaling each other with anecdotes about sheltermates who snored or farted unbelievably. Linda, all agree, slept heavier than anyone: her baby’s predawn wailing wouldn’t rouse her, just everyone else. “By morning her bed be full of books, shoes–everything people threw trying to wake her,” Mary says to guffaws.
The pizza and pop arrive; there is a sudden lull and in short order the pop is drained and not a crust survives on a plate. It’s time for more stories, small talk, and laughter; soon the din is restored. “Don’t worry, be happy,” Bobby McFerrin counsels in the background.
“Your baby doesn’t appreciate your smoking,” Varon lectures Debra, now six months pregnant, when she lights a cigarette. “But I don’t puff on it too hard,” Debra says.
Annette is passed around the table, Linda hanging onto her longest. “I miss holding a baby,” she says, gazing down at the lacy bundle in her arms. “I’m so used to it.”
Someone mentions a former sheltermate whose boyfriend is beating her. “I’m sorry–you’re not supposed to take that when somebody hit you,” Linda says. Debra and Varon eye each other across the table, Debra smiling sheepishly. Debra has already told Varon–and will tell me later–that her boyfriend Al recently slapped her during an argument. Now she says quietly to Varon, “I told him if he do that one more time, that’s it.” Varon responds, “Remember what I said? A real woman would say there is no next time.”
“Ninety percent of men are no good,” Linda is saying. “No–95 percent.”
“A hundred percent,” Debra chimes in.
“Ninety-nine-point-seven percent are dogs,” Linda says.
Two and a half hours after they arrived, the women reluctantly agree it’s time to head home.
Debra, Cheryl, Cory, and Jean and their kids ride in my car. The sky has cleared. As we pass the Loop’s twinkling skyscrapers on Lake Shore Drive, the women ooh and aah like tourists.
I drop Debra off last. She has moved yet again: now she is staying with the mother of a friend of Al’s, on the 12th floor of a building on East 39th Street that’s part of the Ida B. Wells CHA project. Though grinning and gabbing when we left the pizzeria, she has quickly grown silent and grim. When I pull into the parking lot, I can make out a half dozen or so figures in the shadows of her building. “I just wish I didn’t have to go back up in there,” Debra says as she steps from the car.
April 1989: Debra points to the box of Fruit Loops sitting on the dresser near her bed, in her room in the Wells high rise. “I know if I leave it out there, they’ll get to it,” she says, of the people living with her. When she has stored food in the kitchen, it has soon disappeared. “I ask them, ‘Who ate all of it?’ Don’t nobody want to say anything. When I bring something in for myself that I need, you know–‘Don’t touch,’ you know, ‘Ask.’ But they don’t know how.”
Six people are living in the three-bedroom flat. On any night there might be more than that, sacked out on the couch or the floors. The woman who took Debra in “is free-hearted,” Debra tells me, “and by people knowing her because she’s been living here a long time, they sometimes just come up here and sleep.” It makes Debra uneasy; but as a guest herself, who is being charged nothing for her room, she is in no position to complain.
Though Debra appreciates the lodging, she can’t wait to escape this project. The roaches, the dripping pipes, the sharing of quarters with strangers, the “pop-pop-pop” of the gangbangers’ guns outside–it’s grinding her down. Don’t be so fussy, her mother tells her–get yourself one of those project apartments; it ain’t the Ritz, but it beats the streets. Debra says her mother doesn’t realize how much more messed-up these high rises are today than they were when they lived in Cabrini in the 70s.
But Debra’s options are even fewer now than a month ago, because her mother has gotten her knocked off welfare. Her mother had insisted that Debra fork over some of the $250 she was getting from AFDC, since she was caring for Michael, and Debra refused. “She makes over $800 every two weeks, and my stepfather works, too,” Debra tells me. “What’s she need the money for?” So her mother called public aid and got Debra cut from the rolls.
Debra’s welfare caseworker explained to her that since she had no child in her care, she wasn’t eligible for AFDC. He recommended she apply for General Assistance–the welfare program for adults without children. That way, she’d at least get $154 a month. “But when I went down there, I couldn’t apply because I did not have an address,” Debra says. She didn’t use her current address, for fear that she would get her host in hot water with the CHA. (Long-term guests are not allowed in CHA projects.)
Now seven months pregnant, she hasn’t seen a doctor in more than a month. Varon has been pestering her to go to a clinic, Debra says, but “I don’t plan to stay here long, and I don’t want to start up at one clinic, then have to go to a different one.” She isn’t getting food stamps now, either. She eats twice on a typical day: a bowl of Fruit Loops in the morning, a hot dog and pork and beans in the evening.
As if things weren’t bad enough, she heard recently that Al is seeing someone else. He visited Debra just once last week. “He said he felt like I’m pulling him down,” she says. “Like I need him for everything. Like he can’t get the things he wants. And I’m thinking, all the stuff that he’s been through, I’ve been by his side. I’ve even given him money sometimes. I don’t care if I don’t got clothes on my back–if you love me, you’re supposed to stick by me. You try to help her, she tries to help you–that’s what love is, you know? But that’s not how he sees it. He sees that I don’t have anything–I don’t have no money, I don’t have an apartment, I don’t have this, I don’t have that. He wants somebody that have something.”
Last month, “he came over here arguing with me,” she says. “I’m trying to figure out what is going on–he’s not telling me anything. Then he just hauled off and slapped me. And I hit him back. They [people in the apartment] grabbed him before he could do any damage to me, and he left out. He came back and apologized later. He said somebody had told him I said something bad about his mother.
“I been through so many emotions, only to go through more,” she says. “I’m scared now–by my baby dying, me losing Michael, me not having an apartment, me getting cut off public aid, and then maybe losing my boyfriend on top of that? I’m afraid for this baby, that it might come out with a problem or something.”
She called the medical examiner’s office two weeks ago to find out why the investigation into Sheila’s death was taking so long. An assistant medical examiner told her it was because Debra’s mother believed Debra had caused Sheila’s death, and they needed more time to check into her charge. “I called my mother,” Debra tells me, “and I asked her, ‘Do you want them to take me to jail or something?'” Her eyes glisten. “And she said, ‘Yes.'”
She had a nice visit with Michael at a park last week–but that too was upsetting. “He called me by my first name. When I heard that I just froze–I said, ‘Don’t say that, call me Mama.’ And I’m thinking, who’s teaching him to call me by my first name? And I’m knowing it’s my mother.”
She worries about how Sheila’s death will affect Michael. “Michael and Sheila was so close–couldn’t nobody mess with Sheila while Michael was around. If I wasn’t really paying attention to her, he would play with her, give her toys, hug and kiss her, let her crawl all over him. I would put her in the bed with him, and he would wake up during the night–‘Mama, Mama’–’cause she crawling all over him. But sometimes when she started crying I would wake up to give her her bottle, and he’s already giving her a bottle. This just brought tears to my eyes sometimes–it made me feel so good to know my son cares about his sister already.”
She stares at the cinder-block wall next to her bed. “My son is already talking, and I’m missing out on things,” she says. “Those times I complained about all those responsibilities, and the kids being too much work, or, ‘I’m bored’–I wish I hadn’t said that. Because now I really don’t have anything to do. It hurts to see my mother doing things for him, and I’m sitting up here, can’t do anything.”
A sheet of black plastic and masking tape cover a hole in Linda’s front window when I visit her Kenwood apartment in early April. Linda’s boyfriend, Perry, a man in his 40s, is the culprit, she says.
“He took me out Friday, and we went to this lounge. And we met this girl and her boyfriend. We were all drinking, having a ball and everything. I’m really having fun–I done met this girl, she is just the nicest person in the world to me, she was just too nice. Her and Perry slow-danced, but I didn’t mind that ’cause she seemed so nice.
“So we’re coming home. Perry still got the girl and the dude in the car. And then she tells me she just met the man that night in the tavern. So that meant that wasn’t her boyfriend, right? So Perry says, ‘I’m gonna bring her home last.’ We was closer to her house, and I’m like, why come he ain’t bringing her home first? He kept saying he coming back to my place, and I said, ‘Don’t come back.’ I said, ‘You could just keep going.’
“But he came back,” Linda says. “And he was out there crying and beating on his car and everything because I wouldn’t let him in. He kicked that downstairs door off the hinge. That’s a steel door. And then he threw a big rock up here and busted my window. So I went downstairs and I said, ‘What is your problem?’ ‘Uh–I’m sorry, I’ll pay for the window.’ I said, ‘What about the door? You about to get me put out. You got a home that you can go to anytime you get ready, but you gonna come over here and destroy what I don’t have.’ ‘I’m sorry, but your landlord ain’t gonna know this, and he ain’t gonna do nothing.’ But I still feel bad–I kicked that door and got it back so it can lock, ’cause at first that door would not even close.
“Someone said, ‘Well you must got him in love’–naw, love ain’t that serious,” Linda says. “I know I love him–I was crying when I got up here ’cause I felt so bad. But I feel like love is something I can walk away from. You know, I can’t let him just do me like that.”
One morning in the middle of the month, Cheryl’s sister-in-law, call her Laura, arrives with Gwen at the town house where Cheryl is staying. Cheryl’s brother, a marine, is on a boat tour, and so could not make the trip to Chicago. Laura only stays briefly, but that doesn’t surprise Cheryl: she and Laura have never gotten along very well.
After Laura leaves, Gwen, normally a bubbly child, doesn’t want to do anything but sit on the couch. She’s just tired from the trip, Cheryl figures, and she hasn’t seen her for a while. When Gwen finally crawls down from the couch and crosses the room, Cheryl notices she’s limping.
She calls Laura, who is staying at her mother’s on the far south side. Laura says diaper rash is causing the limp.
Later in the day, Cheryl discovers a welt on Gwen’s arm, and bruises on her back. The following morning she takes Gwen to the emergency room at Cook County Hospital. The doctors tell her Gwen has a broken pelvic bone, and will require hospitalization.
That evening, Cheryl leaves Annette with Edward and takes a bus to the house where Laura is staying. There are lights on in the house, but no one responds to her pounding on the door. “Come on outside, Laura!” she screams, over and over. “It ain’t no rash!” After a half hour, she heads home.
Gwen is hospitalized for two weeks. “I wanted the people at the hospital to bring up a case for child abuse, but they said they couldn’t because she was from out of town,” Cheryl tells me while Gwen is still at County. “I called a police station, but they said I had to call down to North Carolina.” She didn’t know who in North Carolina to call, and she was afraid of inadvertently getting her brother in trouble, so she didn’t press the matter. “My brother didn’t do none of this, but I’m mad at him, too,” she says. “When he had to go away, he should have sent Gwen back. He knows how Laura is.
“I’m angry and I’m depressed,” she says. “I feel like I have broken a promise. I had said I wouldn’t let something like this happen to none of my kids. I knew it wasn’t gonna happen from me.
“If I hadn’t sent her down there, this never would have happened. I guess you just can’t trust nobody with your kids. I’m not gonna leave them with anyone now.”
Varon regularly urges the women to avoid resorting to corporal punishment with their kids. Their backgrounds, she tells them, make them prone to be abusive. They ought to rely on time-outs or verbally correcting their children when they misbehave, she says. This is an uphill battle when whupping is the norm, as it was among the women Varon talked with in the shelter. Among these mothers, whupping “was seen as a way of caring,” she says. Discipline methods designed to teach rather than punish also take more time and energy. “And when most of your energy is devoted to just managing, there’s not going to be a lot left over to meet a child’s needs,” she says.
“Gwen don’t get too many whuppings,” Cheryl says. “It hurts me to hit her. I just think if you whup them all the time it’s not gonna really help. And then you might get mad and do something you didn’t mean to do.
“I get upset when she hurts herself,” Cheryl says. “She will be crying, and I’ll get so mad. Sometimes I thought I would actually hurt her because she hurt herself. I know how it feel to be hurt, and I don’t want her to be hurt. When I would take her to the doctor for a shot, they would have a hard time finding the vein, and they’d stick her two or three times–and I would get so upset. I’d say, ‘She don’t need this shot–I’ll just put her clothes on and take her home.'”
Linda says, “It take a lot for me to whup ’em, but I believe a child is supposed to get whupped. I would hate to have them grow up like some kids do now–that talk back to their mother.”
Her children’s messiness provokes her more than anything. “They call me the broom woman, ’cause I’m always sweeping–but it don’t seem to never do no good. I straighten up my kids’ room–then when I go back there a little later, the bed is messed up, the sheet is off the bed, they is jumping on the bed, they done took all the clothes out the dresser drawer and put ’em on the floor. That don’t make no sense.” In the midst of whupping them, sometimes “I be feeling like I might, you know, really hurt ’em or something, but–I ain’t never hurt ’em.”
The whuppings improve her kids’ behavior “for a little while. It don’t really do good for long.
“Sometimes I put ’em on punishment–make ’em sit in the corner or something,” she says. “But I don’t really know much about that punishment. Anita say you supposed to stand there and supervise–I don’t know anything about that.”
“Whuppings are OK to a certain extent, but you can get carried away,” Debra says. “And with a young child, you can just tap ’em and hurt ’em real bad.”
Nothing inflames her as much as Michael’s toilet training lapses. “I remember a day he boofed on the floor, and I got really upset–I mean, I just snapped. He was just one and a half–but, you see, he knew what to do, he just didn’t want to. When we was real little, my mother got us to go to the bathroom. So I went and grabbed the belt and I whupped him. And then he started crying and rubbing his leg, and I noticed it hurted him. I told him, ‘I’m sorry.’ But you know that was bad, ’cause that really upsetted me–I’m trying to potty train him, and he’s gonna get off the stool and go on the floor. But it made me feel bad, watching him rubbing his leg, and him looking at me. I didn’t want him to hate me–that’s the furthest thing I want from my son is for him to hate me.”
On April 26, Debra’s DCFS caseworker calls her with the good news: the medical examiner’s official conclusion is that Sheila died of natural causes. Debra can go get Michael from her mother, the caseworker says.
Sheila died of “bronchiolitis,” according to the report. Her lungs were swollen and congested, and her respiratory tract infected. “There was nothing to indicate that her death was anything but natural,” the deputy medical examiner who performed the autopsy, Shaku Teas, will tell me.
Which doesn’t mean Teas is certain Sheila died naturally. “She could have been suffocated and we would never know, unless there was a witness or someone confessed. Nothing would show up on autopsy. Lots of kids walk around with bronchiolitis, and not many die from it.”
Teas had to wait for the police to complete their investigation before she could issue her report. The police investigation became necessary after Debra’s mother called with her suspicions. The police interviewed Debra, who did not confess anything, and a neighbor in her building, who told them she had never seen Debra mistreat her children. Then Debra’s mother called Teas again, saying she had no reason to believe Debra killed her child–that she had suggested it only because she was mad at her daughter for getting pregnant again.
Teas found no past fractures or other indications of abuse. She is sure Sheila was not shaken to death. “Shaking won’t kill a child unless you cause some damage inside,” according to Teas–damage that shows up in an autopsy. She did find insect bites all over Sheila’s body–not uncommon, she says, for deaths occurring in infested apartments.
After talking with her caseworker, Debra calls me later in the morning with the news, her voice ringing with excitement. She wants to pick up Michael today. I offer to drive her.
I pick her up at her latest home–her sister Rita’s apartment on South Peoria. Debra moved here a week ago. It’s a one-bedroom basement apartment, dark and damp. They may not be able to stay here long–a For Sale sign is stuck in the lawn in front of the two-story brick building. Rita is a year older than Debra. Like Debra, she is single, with a two-year-old and a swelling middle–she is due in three months, about the same time as Debra. She receives aid, though she also works part-time as a bookkeeper. Debra had been reluctant to live with Rita, because the two of them have never gotten along well; but she was dying to get out of the projects. Debra has applied for General Assistance, and expects her first check early next month; now that she’s getting Michael back, she’ll have to reapply for AFDC, so she can get $250 instead of the General Assistance grant of $154.
Debra is worried her mother will refuse to surrender Michael, she tells me in the car. “When I called her this morning to tell her I was coming, she said, ‘You don’t have to take our son away.’ I was like, ‘Wait–he’s my son.’ She’s not the one that had to carry him for nine months. I had to go through her talking about me, making me feel bad, trying to upset me. She was mad that I got pregnant. So she would say things–‘Well, that boy you messing around with, he ain’t no good, and that baby gonna come out ugly,’ and all that. And now she calls him her son.”
We pull up in front of a modest brick home on West 108th Place. Debra’s mother answers the door without a word of greeting to her daughter. Michael stands behind her in the living room. He stands silent and expressionless, his eyes shifting between his mother and grandmother. “OK, Michael–you’re going with your mama now,” Debra’s mother says. “Go put on your jacket.” He turns obediently and heads down the hall. Debra follows.
I introduce myself to Debra’s mother and she launches immediately into a diatribe about her daughter. “She’s been into some stuff so bad I never even heard of it before,” she says. “I don’t know what happened. And I don’t know where she got it, ’cause she was raised in church.” In the few moments we are alone, Debra’s mother tells me her daughter uses drugs and has been involved with a pimp, that she has admitted burning Michael on purpose, and that she still believes Debra caused Sheila’s death, regardless of the coroner’s conclusion. Debra and Michael return to the living room, but Debra’s mother ignores her daughter and continues to address me. “I don’t know why she wants to rush this. She should wait until after she’s done having this baby–until after she has a good place, and she has her mind and her life straightened out.”
Debra heads out the door. Her mother directs Michael to behave himself and tells him good-bye, but offers no hug. She bids me to stop by again sometime, to hear more stories of Debra’s waywardness.
“Just like always, my mother found an opportunity to get alone with someone and talk about me,” Debra says as we pull away from the house. Michael sits between us in the front seat, silent and stone-faced.
I tell Debra what her mother said about the drug use and the pimp. She grimaces. “My mother does not know anything,” she says, her voice taut. “She only knows what people be telling her–what they dream of. People in church tell her they had a dream that I been doing drugs and that I still am–but I’m not doing drugs, nor am I touching drugs. They told her I killed my baby, and she believed them. Come to find out she died of natural causes.
“And I don’t see why my mother complained about where I’m staying at,” Debra goes on. “My grandmother could have come and got us when we were staying at Cabrini-Green–and my mother would know how it feels, to have her children taken from her because of where she staying at.”
She sighs. She’s really going to be on the spot now, she says: because of Sheila’s death and because of Michael’s burning in the bathtub, she expects blame from her mother now every time Michael scrapes his knee. “But I ain’t gonna restrict my son, make him sit in my lap all the time while other kids rip and run. He’s gonna get his bumps and bruises.”
She looks down at Michael. “I love my son,” she says. “And I don’t care how many times they ask me, I’m always gonna say no–I will not give up my son to nobody. He’s mine, and he’s gonna stay mine, and he’s gonna be with me until he’s old enough to leave–and I hope that’s never. I hope that’s never.”
May 1989: Varon arranges, and Linda hosts, a welcome-home party for Gwen and Michael.
Varon arrives at Linda’s around 1 PM, along with Debra, Cory, Jean, and their kids. Cheryl phones to say she and Gwen won’t be able to make it: a key to Edward’s parents’ home is missing, his parents are furious, and she and Edward have to stay to look for it.
Everyone marvels over how Linda has her apartment looking, to her obvious delight. The place is spotless, and featuring several new items that quickly attract the attention of the visitors: a magazine rack in the living room, a wicker hamper and blue towels in the bathroom, a blanket on Linda’s bed. They’re all gifts from Varon, who collected them from friends and relatives for her group. Varon tries to parcel things out equally among the three women, but at the moment Linda’s the only one in a position to make use of household goods.
The women are subdued at first, voicing concern over Cheryl’s latest predicament and disappointment that she and Gwen won’t be able to come. But Linda cranks up WGCI, and soon people are dancing in her living room.
After pizza, Varon produces a sheet cake in the kitchen. “Welcome Home Gwen and Michael” the top line of icing says, with “Happy Birthday Debra” beneath that. Debra turns 20 tomorrow.
“The reason we’re here today,” Varon proclaims, “is because Gwen and Michael, our babies, are back where they belong, with their mommies.” Everyone cheers, then sings happy birthday to a blushing Debra.
June 1989: Cheryl is offered a unit in Stateway Gardens, at $79 a month. On June 15, she and Edward and the two children move into their new home in a ten-story concrete tower at 36th and State.
Cheryl senses that the young men and women loitering in front of the building on the morning they move in aren’t studying her family so much as their belongings; for once, she is grateful for how little they have.
The elevator is dark and foul, and it wobbles its way upward reluctantly. At least it’s working, sparing Cheryl and Edward from having to drag their mattresses and other possessions up the stairs to their flat on the top floor. Litter and graffiti bedeck the ramp leading to the apartment. In the flat itself, the walls are grimy and plaster is blistering on the ceilings. Cheryl notices an exposed hot-water pipe in the living room she’ll have to keep the kids away from. From her living room window, the view is of rusty el tracks, vacant lots, abandoned cars with smashed windshields, trash. But Cheryl has no regrets about moving here. She keeps telling herself she’s got a home of her own again.
July 1989: On July 10, Debra gives birth to a girl in Saint Bernard’s Hospital. It’s the third cesarean section for the 20-year-old.
The father, Al, visits Debra in the hospital, bringing along a few outfits he has bought the baby, Kim. Debra and Al are no longer seeing each other, but Debra hopes this is a sign he will help her support their daughter.
Tired and sore, Debra returns home to her basement apartment on Peoria four days later. Her sister Rita can help Debra only a little with her newborn; she has her own new baby to take care of, having delivered two weeks earlier. Besides caring for Kim and keeping up with Michael, Debra has to start packing. This building has been sold, and the new owner plans to redo the basement flat and hike rent considerably; he wants them out by the end of the month.
When Linda’s aid check comes this month, it’s for $297 instead of her regular $452. She calls her caseworker; he tells her she’s been determined “noncooperative” with the Bureau of Child Support Enforcement, for missing an appointment. Like Cheryl, Linda says she never received notice of the appointment.
Even if she gave the entire check to her landlord, it would be $28 short of what rent is–not to mention the additional $25 minimum she’s supposed to give him each month toward her security deposit. She gives him all she can afford–$260; he’s not satisfied.
“I told him that when my check gets back right, I promise he will get everything I owe him,” she says. “But he didn’t want to hear what I had to say.”
August 1989: Debra and her sister and their children move to a one-bedroom apartment on South Normal. The three-story building containing their flat is sour smelling and in disrepair, and Debra says dope addicts hang out on the sidewalks. But it’s spacious compared with what she’s used to: there’s a separate dining room and the bedroom is large–so she’s pleased. She’s getting her aid check once again–$342 a month, plus $239 in food stamps. She splits the $340 rent with her sister.
Help from Al will no longer be forthcoming: he was convicted of drug peddling last month, and this month he will begin serving a two-year sentence.
Cheryl stopped breast-feeding Annette three months ago, but menstruation has not resumed. Concerned, she visits a neighborhood medical center in mid-August, and learns she’s pregnant again.
Almost immediately, she thinks about an abortion. “I don’t want more kids right now,” she tells me. “I just had a baby. I feel it would be crowding Annette too much. But–it’s still my child. It’s going to be a bad time. But I’d rather go through that bad time, because that baby is a part of me.”
What really depresses her is the image of bringing a newborn home to Stateway Gardens–which has proven to be a hellhole. “They’re always shooting over here,” she says. “They shoot people for selling drugs in the wrong territory, or just for nothing they shoot somebody. Sometimes they shoot up in the sky, just to be shooting. We never stayed in the house so much before. When you go somewhere, you make sure and come back at a good hour when they won’t be rowdy yet.” There have been other unsettling occurrences as well–like the eight-year-old in the next building who plunged out of a window from one of the upper floors last week. He survived, but with many broken bones.
The sinks and the bathtub don’t drain properly, the pipes leak, roaches roam freely, the elevator rarely works. There’s only one reason anyone stays in a place like this, Cheryl says: the rent. She understands why people wind up living in the projects for years and years, despite the conditions. “If you do not keep a positive mind, you won’t do anything to get out–you’ll just stay there and pay $79 a month.”
Moving is out of the question now, because her welfare check was cut last month–from $342 to $187–again, for being “noncooperative” with the Bureau of Child Support Enforcement. Again, she says she got no notice of the appointment she missed.
Edward has dropped out of the computer programming course. Financial aid for a second semester didn’t come through, Cheryl says. Varon periodically asks Cheryl why she doesn’t insist that Edward get a job, even a minimum-wage one. “I do push him sometimes,” Cheryl tells me. “But I feel that if I push too much, I might push him away.”
November 1989: A sheriff’s deputy raps on Linda’s door on Monday morning, November 6. He hands her a piece of paper and his three partners begin carting the family’s belongings out to the parkway.
Linda knew this was coming, having gotten warning letters; but with no other place to go, she stayed put. Now she dresses her two younger kids and Mary’s two little ones. (Mary recently lost her apartment, and she and her kids have been staying with Linda.) The other children are in school; Mary is at her brother’s on the west side. She calls Mary and her boyfriend, Perry, from a neighbor’s phone. Then she heads outside to guard the family’s possessions. The landlord comes by to observe the proceedings. “Mr. Jones, this is our stuff,” Linda’s four-year-old, Maurice, tells him. “We’re fitting to move out of your building.” Linda watches the landlord laugh.
Later she walks to her kids’ school and gets them out of their classes. She explains nothing to Sabrina, 8, and Sharinda, 7, and they ask no questions as she escorts them back to the parkway. She watches them survey the heap–the sofa, the mattresses, the bags of clothes, the blankets and pillows, the dishes, the wicker hamper, the magazine rack; she sees shame register in their eyes and feels like screaming.
“We’re going to a shelter,” she tells them, “where we can save our money for a better place.”
Perry arrives. He can’t stay–he has to get back to work; but he gives her $60 to hire a mover. Mary arrives and says her brother has offered to store their things in his basement for now. An hour later, Linda and Mary flag down an elderly man in a pickup truck and offer him the $60 to move them. He’s too feeble to do much but drive, though, so Linda and Mary hire another passerby, for $40, to help load the truck. It takes two trips to get everything to the west side.
Linda and Mary spend that night–and the next three–at the Roberts, the same motel they stayed at upon leaving the shelter.
Varon calls the contacts she has in several south-side shelters. She secures a spot for Linda and her kids in the Quality of Life center, a state-run shelter at 62nd and Drexel.
I visit her on her second day in the shelter. We talk in a sparsely furnished echoing lounge. Small children and their bleary-eyed mothers drift in and out of the room. Linda herself has bloodshot eyes and yawns frequently. She slept fitfully last night, she explains. “You got to get used to a place before you can sleep good.”
She and her kids have their own room here–which is unusual for a shelter. But it’s still a shelter; she had thought she was through with them. “Now I got to start all over again,” she says with a sigh.
Her three-year-old, Felicia, stands motionless in front of a TV in the middle of the lounge, transfixed by a game show. Someone has just won $10,000.
Linda isn’t sure of her next step. Probably she’ll apply for a CHA apartment. “I wish I could leave Chicago,” she says. “If I knew anybody down south I would leave. But I don’t–I ain’t never been nowhere else.”
Her side throbs constantly, and she feels twinges under one of her breasts. She fears she may be developing breast cancer, like her mother had. “I might as well be at rest,” she says. “I’m tired of worrying and being upset all the time.”
She’s thinking about saving up and taking out a large life insurance policy on herself. “As long as things turn out better for my kids, that’s all I care about,” she says.
She dreamed a few nights ago that her kids were grown. They had the same youthful faces, and her daughters were still in pigtails, but they were shouting and cussing her out like an adult might. “I don’t want my kids to have to go through all these changes I been taking them through,” she says.
December 1989: Debra hosts the group’s second holiday party in her apartment on Normal.
In attendance are Cheryl, Edward, Linda, Cory and her boyfriend, Debra’s sister Rita and her boyfriend, everybody’s kids–nine in all–and Varon.
Debra cooks up a huge kettle of spaghetti, Cheryl supplies the greens, and Linda makes banana pudding. Linda’s oldest daughters, Sabrina and Sharinda, are happy to take care of the babies, and the rest of the kids keep each other company. The children have gotten to know each other from these get-togethers, and they look forward to them as much as their mothers do. “They’re getting to be like cousins,” Varon says. There are presents for each of them today, because Varon has brought two sacks of children’s clothes and toys–hand-me-downs from people she works with. (She has switched jobs; she’s now a counselor with the Chicago Police Department.) Varon lays all the goods on the floor of the living room, and the women take turns picking before their kids’ eager eyes.
The genial atmosphere in the apartment is disrupted early in the evening when Rita’s boyfriend talks with Linda for longer than Rita appreciates. “I don’t want to end up slapping you or something,” Rita tells Linda, in front of everyone else. Linda just rolls her eyes and walks away.
The incident puts a damper on the party, but it doesn’t ruin it. When the guests leave, around 11 PM, they thank Debra heartily for the day. Debra’s affection for her friends prevails over her anger at her sister for making a scene. “I used to think I didn’t get along with anybody in the shelter,” she tells me the day after the party. “By us spending more time together, talking about things that happen, helping each other out, we’re getting closer.”
February 1990: On the afternoon of February 26, Cheryl gives birth to her third child, another daughter–LaKisha. Labor and delivery go smoothly, and the baby is healthy.
Two days later, Cheryl undergoes a tubal ligation. “I’ve had enough kids,” she tells me when I visit her in the hospital that evening. “I want to go to school and get a job, so I have to stop somewhere. So I prefer right here.”
But Cheryl’s ambivalence about the procedure surfaces after she returns home the following day. Several times over the next few days, she thinks LaKisha has stopped breathing. She worries that God may take her baby from her as punishment for having submitted to the “unnatural” operation.
Cheryl is nursing LaKisha in her living room two days after her return home to Stateway, when she hears gunfire outside. Soon there are sirens; she goes to a window and watches paramedics load someone into their ambulance. Police officers are warily entering buildings.
March 1990: Boxes half-filled with clothes and bedding are strewn throughout Debra’s apartment. Debra and Rita are moving two days from now, to separate apartments. They’re splitting up “because we can’t get along no more,” Debra tells me.
“We supposed to share housework,” she says. “She go to school [to an accounting class], I take care of the house; she comes home, sits up and watches TV. She don’t wash dishes when she supposed to, don’t clean house when she supposed to. And then when I ask her to baby-sit my kids, she don’t want to. But I baby-sit her kids all day long. We had a big argument last week. I don’t have time to argue with her. And I told her I just want to move.”
Rita knows a landlady with a pair of apartment buildings in the south-side neighborhood of New City. She rented a flat for herself at 51st and Winchester, and one for Debra two blocks away, at 52nd and Damen. Debra’s two-bedroom apartment will cost her $285 a month. Here she only pays half the rent of $275, but Debra says Rita has promised to help pay her rent at her new place. Debra hasn’t seen the flat yet, but she’s excited about having her own place again. She’s also anxious to leave this neighborhood; three people were shot in the vicinity last week, she says.
A soft cry rises in the rear of the apartment, sending Debra down the hall. She returns with Kim propped against her shoulder, and with a jar of rice cereal and a spoon. Michael is at Debra’s mother’s today, as are Rita’s two kids.
Kim, now eight months old, has curly hair and big, deep-brown eyes. Save for her brief cry upon awakening she is silent during my visit, and doesn’t attempt a smile. She is clad in just a diaper, but no more is necessary in the stuffy apartment. The heat has been “too good” this winter Debra says, reaching behind her and raising a window. There are no storms or screens on the windows, and that almost caused Michael serious injury last month, she says. A bedroom window was wide open, and Debra found Michael standing on the sill, edging his way out of the third-story window. She raced to him, grabbed him by an arm, and yanked him to safety. Blood oozed from his mouth; the sudden jerk had caused him to bite down hard on his tongue. She took him to the hospital, where they sewed up the wound. When Debra’s family learned what had happened, her mother, to her surprise, didn’t blame her or lecture her. But her oldest sister “totally snapped,” Debra says. “I told her it wasn’t my fault, but she didn’t believe me. So me and her fell out. She won’t talk to me and I can’t say anything to her.”
She is feeding Kim in her lap as she talks. Kim gobbles down the cereal, and in no time the spoon is clinking inside the jar. “That’s all, honey,” Debra says.
I ask her how she has been spending most of her time. She smiles and shrugs. “Like this. With her.” Maybe when Kim turns one she’ll try to find a sitter, she says, and get her GED and then a job.
Kim is playing with a yellow rattle in Debra’s lap. She drops it; Debra scoops it off the floor and hands it back to her; she drops it again. “Stop throwing that over there,” Debra says. “I’m gonna hit you in the head with it.”
Sheila’s birthday is coming up, Debra tells me: she would have turned two April 1. Debra wants to visit her grave on her birthday. “I’m mad at myself, because I forgot what graveyard she was buried at,” she says. “That’s how out of it I was at the time. I’ll have to find out.”
Though she and her children are still in the Quality of Life shelter, Linda looks and sounds much less depressed when I visit her in mid-March.
“I was losing my ability to think then,” she tells me, in the same echoing lounge where we talked four months ago. “I’ve got more peace of mind now. I still feel sick, but not as bad as I did. Here, they make you get back strong up on your feet. You save up your money–you have no other choice, because it’s nothing else for you to do.”
She has a nest egg of $800 now. “Pretty soon I’ll have enough to get me out of here,” she says.
She visits Cheryl and Debra at their places occasionally, and they sometimes visit her here. She wishes this would happen more often. “Everyone figure don’t nobody want to be around each other but with Anita. But it don’t be like that–I want to be friends with them. I don’t have too many friends, and it feels good when you have people you know you can go to.”
She worries about whether Cheryl and Debra really like her. “I always been the type that laugh and joke and have fun. I might be playing with them–say I look good or something. In the shelter, they loved it. But now it’s like they take it seriously–like they think I think I’m the baddest woman in the world. Anita always tell me, ‘Linda, they like you a lot.’ Anita want everything to be perfect, but it ain’t all the time like that.
“It would do me good if Debra would come and talk to me like I was her big sister,” Linda says. “I always wanted a little sister. I try to help her when I can–grab her aside and talk to her. Cheryl, too, but she’s more growner than Debra.”
Her doubts about Cheryl and Debra do not extend to Varon. “I know very definitely that Anita is my friend,” she says. “I know that even when I’m doing something wrong, I can count on her to tell me that–which is what a friend is, you know–don’t hold nothing back.”
Last month, Linda began taking GED classes at the YWCA across the street, attending them four days a week for three hours a day. Then one afternoon the phone in the shelter hallway rang, and Linda picked it up. The woman on the phone told her about a school for dental assistants on the west side. The school seemed too good to be true: Linda would have no problem being accepted, the woman said, and she’d get financial aid to cover tuition, and she was virtually assured of a job upon completing the six-month course. She might even get a regular stipend just for attending classes, the woman said.
Linda took a bus to the school the next day to sign up. The entrance exam was so easy “a seventh-grader could have passed it,” she says. She applied for loans to cover the $6,000-plus tuition. The program was due to start next week. She had stopped going to the GED classes.
I cringe when Linda tells me all this. Coincidentally, I had recently begun checking out the same school for another story. The Illinois attorney general had sued the school in November 1989, charging it with consumer fraud and deceptive business practices. Courses were often taught by students, according to the attorney general’s complaint, in a poorly lighted, poorly ventilated, unhygienic basement, rather than the promised state-approved classroom; and many students were receiving less than half the 720 hours of instruction necessary for certification. Few were winding up with jobs as dental assistants. The students I had spoken with told me the school recruited drug addicts out of shooting galleries, alcoholics off of street corners, and homeless people from shelters, promising them regular stipends while they were enrolled. A west-side social worker I knew said the school had recruited and enrolled two “obviously disorganized schizophrenics” from the psychiatric clinic she directs. The students the school was signing up weren’t likely to complete the course, but they would receive a few stipends, and the school would receive its tuition even when the students defaulted on their loans because they were federally guaranteed. The students, of course, would continue to be on the hook for the loans.
Linda’s mouth drops when I tell her what I know. She will decide later not to attend the school. “I was looking forward to this so much,” she tells me. “It sounded like such a good trade–like I would really be helping people. I guess I just shouldn’t never trust nobody.”
Varon, Linda, Debra, Cheryl, and the kids gather at a pizzeria on 79th Street on a Saturday in late March to celebrate LaKisha’s birth. It’s the same pizzeria where the group ate after the funeral for Debra’s daughter.
While awaiting the food, the kids color with the markers and paper Varon has brought for them, and their mothers gab at the adjacent table. After they polish off three extra-large pizzas and three pitchers of root beer, Varon sets a huge sheet cake on the grown-ups’ table, along with four tubes of frosting and several decorating caps. “You’re all gonna decorate this cake,” she says. As mother of the new baby, Cheryl is elected to start; she writes “Welcome LaKisha” in pink icing. Linda and Debra squeeze out flowers all over the cake’s top. The children watch on tiptoes, begging for a chance, but Varon tells them it’s their mothers’ turn to have some fun.
The manager of the restaurant stops by their table. The waitress has told her about this baby party, and she wants to see LaKisha. She fawns over the baby, then tells the group she’s going to cut 20 percent off their bill “because this is such a happy occasion.” The women later send a piece of cake back to her in the kitchen.
There is only one dispiriting note during the two and a half hours in the pizzeria. Debra says she hasn’t been feeling well lately. “I’m thinking I might be pregnant,” she says hesitantly. There are sighs and concerned faces and no congratulations.
April 1990: Another get-together, this one a housewarming for Debra on a Saturday early in April at her new flat on 52nd.
Varon brings the group by at 2 PM. The kids are installed in a bedroom with toys and a TV. The grown-ups squeeze into Debra’s kitchen, a room already congested with a water heater and a bulky space heater. There are complaints at first, from Cheryl and Linda, about Debra’s lack of a radio: what kind of a party is this going to be without music?
Soon, though, the women are absorbed in the first of several projects Varon has for them today. She has brought a clay pot for each of them, a tray of house plants, and potting soil. They sit around the kitchen table, quarreling over who gets which plant and debating potting techniques. Varon just watches. “I always like to see how they get organized,” she will tell me later. “They argue and negotiate over everything. And then there comes a time when they’re all in harmony. It’s like sewing a quilt.”
Next Varon produces a large poster with the outlines of a peacock and a case of vivid pencils. Help brighten Debra’s apartment, she urges the women. During the next hour and a half, anecdotes about past gatherings and tales about present troubles are interspersed with complaints over elbow room and over certain people hogging certain colors. The room is filled with laughter, and no one seems to miss the radio. The peacock’s feathers gleam orange, yellow, and green. All three women autograph the poster on one border. Linda also writes, in big letters, “DEBRA–LUSCIOUS–SEXY –DEVASTATING–GORGEOUS,” as Debra roars.
Yes, she is pregnant, Debra tells the others. Linda tells her she’s nuts if she doesn’t get her tubes tied after this one’s born. Debra says she’ll consider it.
There is another sheet cake to decorate after dinner. When the women are finished icing it, a yellow stick figure is leading three smaller yellow stick figures to a house. “KIM, WE LOV YOU” is printed above the house, and “MY NEW HOME” below it. A sun shines down on the scene from a corner of the cake, and flowers are everywhere. The kids watch impatiently as Varon places the cake on a pair of milk crates for a photo. Then it is sliced and devoured.
“Ooh, I wish I had a cigarette,” Debra says, rocking in her chair and kneading her arms. We’re sitting at her kitchen table on a Thursday afternoon in mid-April. Her head aches. She picks up a deck of cards on the table and starts shuffling. This morning, she found herself without smokes or money in the house. She’s used to half a pack daily; it’s nearing 2 PM, and she hasn’t had a drag yet today. Her sister will stop by after school with some cigarettes, but that could be another hour or two. Giving up smoking during this pregnancy is out of the question. “I done got so used to cigarettes that I have reactions when I don’t have one. Besides, I smoked when I was pregnant with Kim. Didn’t nothing happen to her.”
Her T-shirt depicts a frazzled-looking “Ms. Mom,” toys tucked under one arm, bending over to scoop up more toys. It is dark in the apartment, Debra having drawn the shades for Kim’s nap. Darren and Samantha are quarreling in the Bewitched rerun droning out of the TV on the kitchen table. Water streams down on the heap of dishes in the kitchen sink; Debra says the water won’t shut off. A seven-week-old, jet black kitten, given her by the next-door neighbor, dozes in a ball in the middle of the room.
“I’m not happy at all about being pregnant again,” Debra says. “This was not planned. This was definitely not planned. I was taking pills. I guess I missed some days.”
Michael’s father is the father of this baby, she says. He still hasn’t given Debra “even a dime” for Michael’s support, and has expressed no interest in providing anything for this one. Debra got involved with him again because “I thought he had got his act together.” She says she might take him to court, “but I still need his social security number, and I still don’t have it.”
She doesn’t consider abortion an option. “I feel that if a person is able to have a child they should have it,” she says. “And if they don’t want it, just put it up for adoption.” Might she put this child up for adoption? She shrugs. “I haven’t sat down and made no plans.”
Michael enters the kitchen. “Go wash your face and hands,” Debra tells him gruffly.
“Linda coulda killed me when I told her I was pregnant,” she says. “She and Anita were saying that they hope this is my last one, that I should go and get my tubes tied. I don’t know if I’m gonna do that or not. I never did like anything that went against having babies. It’s just the way I was raised. See–I would get my tubes tied if they came loose at a certain time. But it’s permanent.
“I have to talk to my doctor about it. You know, as much as these kids drive me crazy, I still love kids, period. But if I tell that to Linda, she’ll go off on me.” She laughs. “She went off on me Saturday [at the gathering at Debra’s], saying that I shouldn’t be thinking about having any more kids–that I’m gonna have three kids, and I’m 20 years old, and that it’s just not right; it stops me from doing the things I want to do. Yeah, she’s right–partially; this should be enough already.”
She doesn’t mind when Linda nags her like this, “because half the time I be thinking the wrong way about stuff. And when I talk to her about it, she straighten it out with a quickness. She’s like a best friend to me. She and Cheryl and Anita–they know me. They’re just trying to talk some sense into me. I probably would be miserable now if I didn’t have any friends to talk to.”
Her sister hasn’t made good on her pledge to help Debra pay her rent here, but Debra doesn’t seem bothered by this. “She has to help her own self out–she’s got problems too,” she says. Right now, Debra is receiving $367 a month from AFDC and $209 in food stamps. The rent of $285, the electric bill, the phone bill, and miscellaneous expenses eat up all of the $367 and more. She sells food stamps to “the Arab grocer” to make ends meet. Sixty-five dollars’ worth of stamps gets her $45. Now that she’s pregnant, she’s not going to even try to find work. “Ain’t nobody gonna hire a pregnant woman,” she says. And after the baby is born, “I’m gonna have to wait at least five months before I can get a baby-sitter and find a job.”
Still, “I feel I’m making a little bit of improvement in my life,” she says. “This place is not the best, but it’s better than what I’ve had. The walls are not nasty and stuff–there’s brand new paint on them. It’s bigger–Michael has his own room, where I can stick him when he’s bad.”
Michael strolls past us just then, to the middle of the kitchen, where he smacks the kitten’s behind, jerking it out of its slumber. Debra watches unfazed, then turns back in her chair and resumes rubbing her arms and rocking. “Ooh, I can’t wait till my sister gets here.”
June 1990: Linda, trolling the streets near the shelter for an available apartment, comes across a dreamy one: a two-bedroom with a huge dining room, a sun porch, and wall-to-wall carpeting for $350. The bathroom, in the midst of rehab, still needs sink, toilet, and tub, and light fixtures are lacking throughout the flat, but the landlord assures Linda the apartment will be ready August 1. He wants a month’s rent and a month’s security deposit in advance. Linda’s welfare grant finally returned to its proper level last month ($485, the 1990 rate for a mother with four children). She has a little more than $1,000 saved, but she doesn’t want to give the landlord much more than half of this. She offers him $600, and he settles for that. Back in the shelter this night, she can hardly contain her excitement; she wishes tomorrow was August 1.
July 1990: “I’ve got a new boyfriend,” Debra tells Linda, Cheryl, and Varon one Saturday afternoon. They’re having lunch at a chicken joint.
Call him Emanuel. He’s 24. He lives around the corner from her, she says, but she’s thinking of asking him to move in. She’s fallen behind in rent, and the landlady has threatened to evict her, so she could use his help. No, he doesn’t have a job, she tells Varon, but he’s real nice, and her kids like him.
After lunch the group drives back to Debra’s. A half dozen young men and women are hanging around in front of her building, and there are eight or ten more inside her apartment. Emanuel is bent over the stove. The condition of the apartment surprises Linda, Cheryl, and Varon almost as much as does the crowd: there are no dishes in the sink or clothes lying about; it’s more orderly than any other apartment Debra’s ever had. From the looks of things, Emanuel has already moved in.
He’s cool toward the women, and they soon decide not to stay. Debra says she’ll walk them out to the car. Thinking she’s leaving, Emanuel pulls a thick wad of bills from a pocket. “Here–you need something?” he says to Debra, waving the wad in front of her.
At Varon’s car Cheryl says to Debra, “I thought you said he wasn’t working.”
“His uncle left him some money,” Debra says.
“Don’t get into anything you can’t deal with,” Linda tells her. “You could come stay with me in the shelter. I could talk to the people and get you in. We could share a room. ‘Cause you know this boy ain’t straight.”
“Y’all just don’t like it ’cause I got a man,” Debra says.
While Varon is driving Linda and Cheryl home, they tell her they’re pretty certain Emanuel is a drug peddler. “The crowd just wasn’t right,” Linda says. “And you saw how he was showing that money around. He just looked like a little gangbanger.”
Varon hadn’t said much to Debra at the car. Later she will tell me she was proud of the way Cheryl and Linda talked to Debra. “They didn’t hold back like they usually do. But this was an especially sensitive issue for them. They’ve all talked about worrying that they’ll have an apartment with a boyfriend some day, and the boyfriend will put them and their children out.”
“Debra is very vulnerable,” Linda will tell me later. “She lets people influence her too much. I didn’t like the situation she was getting herself into. When somebody sells drugs, he can have a lot of money one day and nothing the next.”
August 1990: The apartment Linda rented is not ready as promised. Numerous times during July, she tried to locate the landlord, to see how work on her flat was progressing; but he was never around the building, and she hadn’t asked him for a phone number. She feared she had been conned out of $600.
It’s a relief when she finds him at the building on August 1. But he tells her he hasn’t gotten around to finishing the apartment. “I was on vacation,” he tells her matter-of-factly. “Did you expect me to give up my vacation to do this?”
The place will be ready October 1, he now says. If she can’t wait, he says, he’s got another two-bedroom in a building he owns nearby, and it’s available immediately. She can have it for the same rent. Linda tours this apartment, which is on Langley. There is no sun porch and no carpeting, and the dining room is much smaller. She is furious with the landlord. But her hopes have been so set on leaving the shelter that the idea of staying another month or two sickens her. She takes the place on Langley.
In mid-August Cheryl is evicted from Stateway Gardens.
It’s all Sweet’s fault, Cheryl tells me. Sweet (not her real name), a neighbor on her floor, made up stories about her and Edward, Cheryl says. “She had people believing we was selling drugs out of our apartment.”
Sweet would constantly hit on Cheryl and Edward for loans, Cheryl says. When they quit coming through for her, she says, Sweet got mad. It was shortly thereafter that a project official told Cheryl he knew drugs were being peddled from her apartment, and not long after that that she got the eviction notice, she says. Sure, a lot of young boys hung in their apartment, playing their Nintendo, she says, and maybe some of them did sell drugs elsewhere in the project–but not from her apartment.
Cheryl didn’t fight the eviction, she says, because she and Edward had decided to leave the project anyway. The last straw was when Edward got jumped by a bunch of young men earlier this summer for no apparent reason. They “picked him up and slammed him to the ground and started stepping on him,” Cheryl says. Cheryl stopped paying rent three months ago “because I knew I was gonna move and I just didn’t want to pay it.” Her big mistake was becoming friendly with Sweet in the first place, she says, instead of just sticking to herself. “You find a lot of people trying to be your friend. And you have to evaluate if they’re really trying to be your friend or they’re just trying to get over.”
Cheryl and Edward “were nice kids, but they just didn’t know how to take care of their money,” Sweet would tell me later. The mother of three teenagers, she has lived at Stateway for seven years. “They spent it on things they didn’t need. These $40 Nintendo tapes–they’d buy them two at a time. You can’t live like that when you’re on aid.” Sweet maintains she made no charges about dope peddling from Cheryl’s apartment. To her knowledge, no one was selling drugs out of the flat–though Cheryl and Edward did use drugs, she says, mainly reefer, sometimes mixing it with cocaine. As far as Sweet knows, Cheryl was evicted simply for not paying her rent.
CHA officials would not disclose why Cheryl was evicted.
While the eviction was pending, Cheryl hunted apartments. In early August she rented a studio on the west side, in a large tenement on Washington near Cicero. The $300 rent included heat, the landlady told her.
Because Cheryl owed $150 to the grocer across the street from her Stateway apartment–money she didn’t have–she and Edward moved out at night, after his store was closed and he was gone. The evening they left, August 18, the elevator wasn’t working; so from seven in the evening until five the next morning they dragged their things down the ten flights of steps–including the couch and two armchairs Varon had given them, the kitchen table, two dressers, mattresses, and the TV–to the U-Haul they had rented. They had to return the truck to the north side by 6 AM, so they ended up abandoning in the flat a washing machine, a dresser, and frames for two beds.
Their new place was much smaller, the paint was peeling on the walls and there were gaping cracks in the floor. Cheryl hardly noticed; all she felt was relief over leaving the projects behind and the hope that accompanies a fresh start.
Linda hasn’t lived in a first-floor apartment before and it makes her uneasy; so she paces the hallway every night during her first week on Langley, fearing prowlers. The second week she begins to relax. Then her flat is burglarized.
She returns home one evening with the kids and finds the back door ajar and her TV gone–the color TV she had just purchased for $399 and still owed $150 on.
The next week a couple who live at the shelter drop by to visit her. Linda is washing clothes at the laundromat, but Mary is watching her kids at the apartment and lets the couple in. They leave before Linda returns–taking with them, Linda discovers later, “a whole garbage bag full of my kids’ clothes.” Linda calls the shelter director. He promises to get the clothes back for her and expel the couple from the shelter if she will come and identify the clothes. But “they had three kids, and I didn’t want to get them put out in the street,” Linda says–so she lets the matter pass.
September 1990: Cheryl, distraught, calls Varon one morning to tell her she and Edward have been robbed of all their money.
It happened yesterday afternoon, she tells Varon. They were out with the kids, walking on Madison near Pulaski, when a young man pulled a gun on them. He ordered her to hand over the pouch she was carrying (a pouch Varon had given her); in it was $200, all the money the family had left for the month. She hadn’t wanted to carry so much money with her, but Edward had asked her to. The gunman took off down an alley. They didn’t report the robbery to police, she tells Varon, because “they couldn’t have did nothing–that boy was long gone.”
They’ve already paid rent for the month, Cheryl says; but they’ve used up all their food stamps, and she doesn’t know how they’re going to eat until her check comes in two weeks. So Varon arranges to meet Cheryl at a grocery store, where she buys her cereal and milk, bread, spaghetti and sauce, bologna, rice, diapers.
“When is Edward gonna get off his duff and get a job?” Varon asks her.
“He’s trying,” Cheryl says.
“He’s taking advantage of you,” Varon says.
A week later Linda’s purse is snatched in a lounge on 75th Street. She loses $100. Why was she carrying so much? “I don’t know–I just was,” she says.
When she tells her landlord she needs another set of keys, he demands that she buy new locks for her apartment, for the security door, and for a door to the basement. This runs her $60. Now she doesn’t know how she’ll make her rent payment next month.
October 1990: On October 10, Debra gives birth to a girl, “Maureen,” at Saint Bernard’s Hospital, her fourth C-section.
The doctor tells her the next day that she shouldn’t have any more kids; she shouldn’t subject her body to any more cesareans.
“I cried when he said that,” Debra tells me a week later when I visit her at her apartment. “I was planning to get my tubes tied anyway, but to actually hear that from him–it hurted. Because I was still thinking that later on maybe I could have some more kids.” She couldn’t get the tubal done at Saint Bernard’s–Catholic hospitals don’t do them. Maybe she’ll go to another hospital for the procedure in a couple of weeks, she says.
She’s no longer living on 52nd Street when I visit her, but around the corner on Damen with her boyfriend Emanuel. It’s a three-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a tar-paper two-story. His grandmother owns it and lives downstairs, so it’s been easy to get repairs made. Rent is $485, but Emanuel pays most of that, Debra says. He has a part-time city job, she says–she thinks it’s with Streets and Sanitation.
She is giving Maureen a bottle as we talk. The pin she is wearing says “World’s Greatest Mom.” I ask her to describe her kids.
“Michael is very bad,” she tells me. “He fights. He lies a lot. Like he’ll tell you he didn’t pee in the bed–later, come to find out he did.” She shakes her head. “I don’t know–he’s just bad.
“Kim? Oh, I know that one for sure–she’s sneaky. I caught her messing with a plug the other day. She saw me look at her, and she dropped it and ran. I whupped her for it–and then a little while later I caught her doing it again.”
One-week-old Maureen “is greedy, very greedy,” Debra says. “She wants to eat all the time.”
Things have gone well for her since Emanuel came into her life, she says. She feels he’s genuinely interested in providing not only for her but for her kids as well. He has a way of talking to them that makes them listen; she only wishes they would mind her as well as they do him.
They’ve talked about getting married “as soon as we get our money situation straightened out.” Until then, she says, they’ll stay in this apartment on Damen. “I expect to live here quite a while.”
When she was small, Cheryl fantasized about owning a large home one day–with two bathrooms, a separate dining room, a spacious backyard–and living in it with her husband and kids and her brother, his wife, and their kids. Except the part about living with her brother’s spouse, it still sounds nice to her “but it doesn’t seem like none of that is gonna happen.”
The future “looks very difficult, especially without an education,” Debra says. She wishes she hadn’t quit school when she did. “I see little kids coming home–‘I hate school,’ throwing their homework on the floor and stuff, and I feel like, damn–I did those things. I wish I hadn’t. My kids are gonna get a lot of encouragement from me to stay in school.
“I’m gonna be more than their mother,” she says. “I’m gonna be their friend. I will talk to them, I won’t holler at them. If they come to me to talk about sex, I won’t get upset–I will tell them what they need to know. And I’m gonna always tell them that I love them. When you tell a child you love them, they feel good about themselves, because they know that somebody’s gonna be there for them.”
Her son Michael “is gonna learn how to respect a woman,” Debra says. “When he’s of age, I’m gonna tell him my whole life story–all the men I’ve had, how they treated me, and how much it hurted. I’m gonna tell him that if you find a woman that loves you, I don’t care if she’s butt-naked out in the street–you stick by her. If she’s pregnant, you stick by her no matter what.”
For Linda, too, a priority is teaching her son “not to be out there just using girls. I’m going to say to him, ‘You didn’t like the way your mother had to raise you alone, right? While your father’s out there making babies everywhere. You can be a much better person than that.’
“If my daughters get pregnant at an early age, I’m gonna die an unhappy woman,” she says. “I’m gonna tell them it’s gonna always be many boys out there–you should go ahead and finish school first.
“I want my kids to be able to talk to me about anything,” Linda says. “Parents got to take out time for their kids, and talk to them, and let them know they always–always gonna be there for them.”
On the morning of October 21, Cheryl goes to the currency exchange at 39th and Wentworth to pick up her welfare check and food stamps. She cashes the $414 aid check and stuffs it along with her $267 in food stamps in a front coat pocket.
When she emerges from the exchange, a man with a Caribbean accent stops her. “He asked me if I knew of any hotels nearby,” Cheryl will tell me later. “He said he was from out of town. He said his brother had been killed recently, and he had come into town to pick up the money he inherited. It sounded suspicious, and I was steady trying to get away from him.”
Then a woman approached from behind her, Cheryl will say. “She told the man, ‘I’ve got a car, I’ll drive you.’ But he said he thought he could trust me more, because I looked like his sister. It was about ten minutes before I could get away from them.”
At the el station at 35th and the Dan Ryan, when Cheryl reached into her coat pocket for the fare, she discovered her money and stamps were gone. “The lady must have taken it when she came up on my other side.
“I was mad and disgusted, I was crying–I couldn’t believe it had happened,” she tells me a few days later. She walked back toward the currency exchange, saw a squad car parked in front, and reported the theft. The officer gave her a dollar for train fare. Cheryl took the el downtown to Varon’s office. Varon gave her money for diapers and milk. The next day Cheryl reported the theft to a public aid office, and was given an emergency voucher for $204.
Now she doesn’t know how she’s going to pay rent for November, she says; and her landlady is just looking for an excuse to throw her out, because Cheryl called city building inspectors when she didn’t turn on the heat on some chilly nights this month. “I was the only one with small kids in the building, so she knew it was me who called,” Cheryl says. She believes it was no coincidence that her apartment suffered repeated power outages the following week.
The wide cracks in the floorboards of the flat let in icy drafts, as well as “bold mice that run everywhere,” Cheryl says. The way the water trickles out of the faucets, running a bath takes forever; and the water drains out just as slowly. “Maybe I should have stayed in the projects.”
She got into an argument one afternoon last week in the hallway with another young woman who lives in the building. Cheryl was certain the woman had stolen a pack of her cigarettes. The dispute probably wouldn’t have escalated, Cheryl says, except for the other residents in the building, who are always itching to see a fight. “People come into the hallway and want to hype a person and make them show out more. I tried to walk away, but then she pushed me and spat at me, so I hit her, and we started fighting.” Edward broke it up before either woman was injured.
She got into it with Edward, too, recently. The subject of Gwen’s father came into their conversation one evening, and soon they were squabbling. “Then he just punched me in the jaw, and then he left out,” Cheryl says. He came back later that evening and apologized, and she forgave him. Cheryl related the incident to Varon, who advised her to say good-bye to Edward. “But I don’t want to be all alone,” Cheryl tells me.
November 1990: “Ain’t no man ever treated me this nice–ever,” Linda tells me.
Call him Henry. Linda has known him for several years, but started seeing him regularly in September. He is 65 and married, with five grown kids. Linda isn’t sure what he did for a living, but he is retired now. “I don’t know–I think he owned his own business. I don’t care.”
He has been staying with Linda most nights. “He’s real sweet,” she says. “We’re able to talk, we laugh, we have fun. The only thing I could ask for is [that he had] more younger looks–but that’s the only thing.” He paid her rent last month and again this month, and he has helped her with other expenses as well. “That’s how I be able to make it at all,” she says. Does he expect anything in return for his generosity? “I don’t know–sex, I guess. I don’t have anything else to offer him.”
She laughs. “He says, ‘You got to work to get your money.’ I say, ‘What I got to do?’ ‘Keep me happy.'”
November 1990: The day before Thanksgiving Cheryl and Edward stuff clothes and diapers into two large plastic bags. They move their sofa and armchairs, their TV and refrigerator, their dishes and the rest of their clothes into the apartment of the woman across the hall. They didn’t pay any rent this month, and so the landlady has told them to get the hell out of her building. She hasn’t begun any formal eviction proceedings, but “ain’t no proceedings with her,” Cheryl tells me later. “She’s just a no-good person. I decided that before I took the chance of her setting all of our things outside, I would move.”
She is resigned to staying in a shelter again, until she can once more save up enough for an apartment. From a neighbor’s phone, she calls the city’s Department of Human Services (DHS); they promise to send someone to her building to take the family to a shelter. Two hours later, no one has shown. Cheryl and Edward start walking east on Washington, with the children and the sacks and no particular destination. They end up staying the night in the Zanzibar West Motel, on Jackson near Kedzie.
On Thanksgiving morning they take a bus to Union Station. From the Travelers & Immigrants Aid office where Varon used to work, Cheryl again phones DHS. “I thought if I called from there it would sound more official, and they’d really come out.” Two DHS workers arrive several hours later. They take Cheryl and the kids to a north-side shelter for homeless women and their children. Edward heads over to Pacific Garden Mission.
The staff is pleasant and the heat is good in the north-side shelter; Cheryl wouldn’t have minded staying there longer. But it is a short-term, transitional facility; after two days, the family is transferred to a shelter on the far south side. The sleeping quarters here are on the third floor, above a church and church offices, while the bathrooms are in the basement. A dozen women and their kids sleep in one large room that feels little warmer than the streets. Cheryl and all three kids develop miserable colds.
After three awful days in the shelter, Cheryl breaks down and calls Varon for help. She hadn’t called her before “’cause I thought I had bothered her too much.” Varon manages to secure a place for the family in the Quality of Life shelter.
Fathers are allowed to stay with their families in Quality of Life. But Varon advised staff there to keep Edward out. “He’s a freeloader,” Varon will tell me. “He’d be happy to spend all of his days lying around the shelter doing nothing. Besides, he had physically abused her. I felt that if I was going to find her this resource, then I had a right to intervene in her life in this way. I told her at the time that if she wanted to stay in the shelter, I would work against Edward getting in. She didn’t have much reaction. She said she understood how I felt.
“I know the timing stinks,” Varon will say. “She will miss him, because she’s so alone. But I think it’ll be better for her in the long run.”
In late November, Cheryl and the kids move into Quality of Life.
December 1990: “Every day I want to leave,” Cheryl tells me when I visit her in her room at Quality of Life a few days later. Being in a shelter is harder to accept this time around, she says, “because I was living in my own apartment for so long. And then I have three other attitudes to put up with now–because I can tell my kids don’t want to be here either.”
Eight-month-old LaKisha lies in a crib at the foot of a bed, sucking on a bottle. Twenty-month-old Annette wanders around the room, toting her own bottle. Gwen, three and a half now, is monitoring the misbehavior of one of her roommates–a four-year-old boy who repeatedly whacks his toddler brother across the back. “Don’t fight!” Gwen tells him again and again, to no avail. “Gwen, don’t mess with him,” Cheryl says. Gwen retreats reluctantly. The boys’ mother is out of the room. She always seems to have business elsewhere, Cheryl says, constantly leaving the kids in the room with Cheryl.
The room lacks toys and books. The kids do little but watch TV, Cheryl says.
Gwen has started wetting the bed at night. Annette was already toilet-trained, but now she’s back in diapers. Annette “has been whining all the time,” Cheryl says. “She knows this is not home. LaKisha been fussier too. The first day we got to all the shelters she cried a lot, looked around like, ‘What is this–where am I?'”
Her roommate returns. Cheryl points to her older son. “He been beating your other one up.”
“Mama–” the boy says.
“Shut up,” his mother tells him.
Edward is living at his parents’ again, Cheryl says. He visits her daily. I ask her how she feels about Varon blocking him from staying here. “I think she can have her own opinion,” Cheryl says. “But I also feel like I’m grown and that that decision should have been up to me. How does she know what’s best for me? To have a person stay with you that you like is nice.
“Anita’s always saying, ‘He need a job, he need a job.’ And I feel like he need a job, too–but it just seem like it wasn’t nothing out there.” He had planned to enlist in the Army, she says, but the way things have heated up in the Persian Gulf, he doesn’t care to do that now, and she doesn’t want him to either.
“I feel like she [Varon] think, ‘I helped you, and so whatever I say must go,'” Cheryl says. “And it shouldn’t be like that.”
Her roommate asks if Cheryl will watch her children for a few minutes more; she has to go out and buy diapers. Cheryl nods hesitantly.
She doesn’t care to make friends with her sheltermates here. In a shelter “You have people who pretend to be your friend, and then they get in your face or take your things. They’re always–‘Give me a cigarette, give me a cigarette.’ They watch you to see if you’re a soft-hearted person. So your best bet is to not get too close to anybody. I play cards with them every once in a while. But I don’t make myself so free where they can say, ‘I’m your friend.'”
She has thought about moving to Milwaukee. People she knows who have lived there have told her that city provides much more help to its poor and homeless. “It seem like I just cannot make it in Chicago no way,” she says.
Gwen plops down next to her on the bed. “Get away from me,” Cheryl tells her, “’cause you smell like pee.”
Varon hasn’t heard from Debra in two weeks. When she tried calling her last week, a recording informed her the phone was disconnected. So on the first Saturday in December Varon picks up Cheryl at Quality of Life, and they head out to Debra’s place on Damen. There’s no answer at her door. They try downstairs. A woman there tells them that Debra and Emanuel and the kids have moved to Minnesota.
Henry continues to treat Linda like a queen. “He bought me five outfits, and none of them are under $250,” she tells me. The 1980 Buick Riviera parked in front of her place is another recent present. Linda has to get her driver’s license before she can drive it.
It would be easy to sit back and relax now, she says, but she isn’t doing that. Last week she enrolled in a beauty school on Ashland. Classes start December 28. “It’s something I always wanted to do,” she says. “I love to do hair. And I don’t want to just depend on him.” She applied for federal grants and loans to cover the $3,000 tuition. Classes are eight hours a day, four days a week for nine months. Mary will watch her kids; Linda just has to “keep her kids’ hair done” in return. “I know how to do most of the stuff they teach, but you need to go through it to get your license,” she says. She hopes the school is more reputable than the last one she enrolled in. “If you want to learn something, you will,” she says. “My attention span is not that long, but I’m gonna work at it.
“I’ve matured–a lot,” she says. “I’m more settle-minded now. I’m more dependable–I know the things I have to do and I just go ahead and do them. I don’t hesitate, I don’t think twice. I don’t need to be part of the in-crowd as much anymore. It’s mainly because I got older. I even got so I enjoy cooking–just being more of a family mother and doing right.”
She is upset that Debra left Chicago without telling her or Cheryl or Varon. “She could have at least called Anita. How long would that have took?
“Debra is not mentally stable to be by herself,” she says. “She might be with her boyfriend now, but that ain’t nothing–because a man will turn on you in a minute. I wouldn’t never go nowhere with no man unless I had a round-trip ticket. You need your friends.”
But she doesn’t worry about Henry turning on her. “I don’t think he would never break up with me,” she says.
“It’s been a whole lot of confusion around here,” Cheryl tells me in her room at Quality of Life, on the morning of December 17. “They may put me out today.”
She had an argument with one of the staff members a few days ago, she says.
“I was in the solarium [the lounge at the end of the hall], and Annette was sitting in the hall, playing with her shoe. He [the staff member] come up to me and said, ‘Your daughter in the hall again.’ He said, ‘You better learn to take care of your kids.’ I said, ‘You make a person feel that you’re better than them.’ And he said, ‘I am better than you.'” More words were exchanged. Before the staff member marched off, Cheryl says, he told her he would see to it she got kicked out of the shelter. She is scheduled to meet with the director this afternoon. She has no idea where she will go if she has to leave.
Later this day Cheryl is indeed asked to leave the shelter, by the following morning. But it was not a single altercation with a staff member that caused this, the director, who prefers anonymity, tells me. “She was very, very disrespectful of our staff, and she broke many other rules, which I would rather not go into.” “We do not put people out without good cause. We believe in treating people with respect, so they will treat us with respect.”
The morning she has to leave, Cheryl calls Varon, who calls Linda, who offers to put Cheryl and her kids up in her living room for the time being.
On December 22, a frigid Saturday, Linda hosts the group’s third holiday party.
Attending are Cheryl and her kids, who are still staying here, Cory and her two kids, Varon and myself. Most of us keep our coats on for the four hours the party runs, against the chill in the apartment. Heat has been a real problem here, Linda says. Cold air seeps in through the back door and the windows, and the heat in her apartment seems to get sucked down to the basement through a couple of vents. She got a gas bill last week for $118 for a half month. “I’m paying to heat his [the landlord’s] basement,” she says.
The mood at the party is as frosty as the flat. Cheryl spends most of the afternoon in the living room, talking quietly to Cory, while Linda prepares dinner in the kitchen, with help from Varon. The kids play and watch TV in Linda’s bedroom.
“Been a whole lot of confusions around here,” Cheryl tells me in the living room. The room is dark, save for one strand of twinkling lights on the small tree by the front window. WGCI blares out of a small radio on a cabinet in the adjacent dining room. Cheryl is wearing a baseball cap and a jean jacket. LaKisha is in her lap, rubbing her eyes, having just awakened from a nap on the couch. Cheryl herself yawns repeatedly. “I was up all last night,” she says. “Me and Edward went to a friend’s house and stayed there. I just wanted to stay away from the confusion.”
Linda leaves drugs lying around the house, Cheryl tells me. “And it only take a little of that stuff to do bad things to a small child.”
Varon walks into the living room holding Annette by a hand. “Annette needs a sweater–she’s cold,” she tells Cheryl. Cheryl fishes one out of a bag by her feet and gives it to Varon; Varon and the child head back down the hall.
Cheryl says Varon is upset with her because she didn’t bring the greens for the party, as she had promised to. “I didn’t bring them ’cause I thought I wasn’t gonna come, but then I changed my mind,” she tells me. Cheryl and Varon have also differed this week over where Cheryl should stay next, Cheryl says. Cheryl has found a rooming house nearby she’s considering moving to; Varon has already secured a place for Cheryl at a south-side shelter, where she thinks Cheryl should stay until she saves up enough for an apartment. “I told her, ‘Anita, it’s Christmas–I don’t want to stay in a shelter,'” Cheryl says. “Anita said, ‘But you need to, Cheryl.’ I know what I need.”
In the kitchen, under a bare bulb dangling from the ceiling, Linda is deep-frying chicken on the small, ancient stove she got for $50 at a used-appliances store. The odor of the frying chicken and the sweet potato pie in the oven mingle delightfully in the air. “I’m on a natural high,” Linda croons, stirring a pot of rice.
Cheryl’s behavior is “casting a pall” over the party, Varon tells me quietly in the kitchen. “She isn’t taking care of her kids–they’re cold, they’re not clean. She’s not taking part. She didn’t get the greens. She’s told lies about Linda, and she told Linda lies about things I supposedly said about her. I don’t know what’s going on.”
The rooming house Cheryl wants to stay in “is gonna suck up all her money,” Varon says.
“I’m hurt by how she’s acting,” she says. “I’ve put a lot into the relationship these last few years.”
Before dinner, Varon spreads an array of hand-me-down puzzles and toys on the dining room floor, and Linda, Cheryl, and Cory take turns picking. Cheryl is mum and sullen-faced as she makes her choices. (“She acted like she was doing Anita a favor taking those toys,” Linda will tell me later.) Linda snaps some photos with Varon’s camera, but it jams after just a few shots.
January 1991: The financial aid for the beauty school still hasn’t come through, so Linda wasn’t able to start classes last month as planned. “I be constantly calling them,” she tells me early in January.
Henry had been teasing her lately, saying he had a surprise for her. Then a few days ago, he told her the surprise: he’s leaving his wife. After the divorce is final he’ll marry Linda–probably early next year, he says. “I won’t believe it till I see it,” Linda says. “I told him, ‘I didn’t ask you for the lie, so you didn’t have to give it to me.'”
Her December gas bill just came, and it was for $279. Linda recently taped plastic over the vents through which her heat seems to be escaping to the basement, and she hopes that helps lower future bills. I ask her why she doesn’t complain to the landlord about the situation. “What am I gonna say to him? He’d say, ‘You knew you had to pay your heat when you moved here.'” Henry doesn’t want her to move; but while he continues to help pay her rent, he hasn’t volunteered to cover the gas bill; so if the bills continue to be high, “I’ll just have to look for another place,” Linda says.
Cheryl left for the rooming house the day after the party, Linda says. Linda was glad to see her go; she didn’t appreciate how unfriendly Cheryl was while she stayed here. “Cheryl got a nasty attitude,” Linda says. “She had problems growing up, but so did everyone else. Everything your parents did reflect on you now, but most of the things I think you can halfway control. Or at least not make them a burden on somebody else.”
Linda isn’t mourning the group’s apparent disintegration. She’s always gotten more out of her relationship with Varon, she says, than from her friendship with Cheryl or Debra. Although she had wanted to play a big-sister role with Debra, she doubts that would have amounted to much even had Debra not moved; Debra wouldn’t have wanted that kind of relationship. “People don’t want to have to ask nobody else for nothing,” she says. The group held together for more than two years only because “we all liked Anita.”
Debra calls Varon from Minnesota one evening early in the month. She and Emanuel have their own apartment in Minneapolis, she says, and Emanuel has a full-time maintenance job. They moved because Emanuel wanted to: he has some relatives and friends here. Everything is going well, she says–except Michael’s being bad: he’s started peeing in the bed again.
She leaves her phone number with Varon. When I call her a week later, the phone has been disconnected.
Varon hasn’t heard from Cheryl since the party, she tells me a few days later.
“I’ve been thinking hard about this,” she says. “I think she will call again. And I think when she does, I’m going to have to say good-bye to her.”
She’s been wondering if Cheryl has been using her. She’s started to question some of the things Cheryl has told her in recent weeks. She doesn’t doubt that Cheryl got robbed at the currency exchange–she saw the police report; but she wonders whether the stickup on Madison really occurred. She wonders whether Cheryl and Edward have become heavily involved with drugs.
Maybe the ceaselessly bleak circumstances of her life finally pulled her down, Varon thinks; maybe her deplorable upbringing. Whatever, “She seems to have lost sight of her goals, and gotten comfortable with an easy way out. She’s gotten comfortable with lying. And I don’t need that in my life.”
It will be difficult to tell her good-bye, Varon says. “I’ve treasured her company; I’ve loved her. She’s a diamond in the rough. She’s a person who’s been too comfortable being silent–probably because for most of her life, no one cared what she thought. But once she warmed up to you, she could express herself almost poetically.”
Varon is “still reeling” over Debra’s move to Minnesota. “I hope it helps her with her life. I’m all for new beginnings, but I also know that if you’re the same person, it doesn’t matter where you go. If in fact the girls [Linda and Cheryl] are right, and Emanuel is a drug dealer, then her life can’t be good for very long.
She plans to put together photo albums from the many pictures of the group she took over the last two years, and send them to Cheryl and Debra.
At least no threat looms to her relationship with Linda. When the war with Iraq broke out earlier this week, Linda, deeply troubled, called Varon and talked to her on the phone for an hour. “I don’t think we’ll ever relate exactly as peers, because I want to stay in that helping role,” Varon says. “But there’s a different quality to our relationship now–it’s more like two women just getting together. When I met her, she was in such pain, and so helpless. She’s come a long way. She’s matured–she isn’t a kid anymore.”
The group itself “was a wonderfully worthwhile endeavor,” Varon says. “I have no regrets whatsoever about doing it. We had times together that we all enjoyed tremendously. Maybe there was something in it that the women will at some point in their lives be able to pull back and use.”
“I called Anita yesterday,” Cheryl tells me one afternoon the next week. We’re in a McDonald’s on Western Avenue. “I said, ‘Anita, what’s wrong?’ She said, ‘I don’t know right now–we’ll have to talk about it later.'”
She shrugs. “I honestly don’t know what’s wrong. It must have had something to do with me not wanting to go to another shelter.
“We got bitter someplace,” she says. “There was a lot of jealousy in the group over Anita–‘Anita likes you most, Anita gives you the most, Anita spends more time with you.’ I think it split the group. I felt Anita was too busy with Linda at times. I knew Linda was probably having more problems than me then–but it upsetted me.”
The rooming house where Cheryl now stays is in a dilapidated brick two-story on Marshfield, in the midst of several abandoned and partially boarded homes. Counting children, about 25 people stay in the two three-bedroom flats, Cheryl says: the families get bedrooms, the single men sleep on couches in the living rooms. The organization that runs the rooming house calls itself a not-for-profit aiding the homeless, but rent for Cheryl’s one room is $325, so she isn’t saving anything while staying here. I suspect the rooming house’s clientele are people who, like Cheryl, can’t cover a security deposit and the first month’s rent on an apartment of their own, but who want to avoid shelters and their rules.
But seedy places like the one she’s staying in have their own rules: we came to this McDonald’s today because a staff member wouldn’t allow Cheryl to meet with a reporter in the rooming house. Cheryl holds LaKisha in her lap while we talk; Annette is next to her in the booth, nibbling on fries; Gwen is next to me, caressing the box of Chocolaty Chip cookies I bought her, which her mother has told her to keep for later. Edward is still staying at his parents’.
Cheryl has seemed weary other times we’ve visited, but never this much so: there are creases under her eyes, her shoulders droop, her voice is thin and flat. It’s hard to remember she’s just 22. She isn’t sleeping well in the rooming house: she doesn’t trust the people she’s living with, and the heat has been poor. The power has gone out a few times, the phone has been disconnected.
Linda’s friend Mary drove her to the rooming house, she says. When Cheryl got her clothes out of the trunk, she noticed many of them were gone. “I think Linda stole them,” she says. “If she didn’t, then Mary did, and Linda knew about it.”
The group has really unraveled, I say.
Cheryl nods. “All of us helped each other a lot at one point in time,” she says. “But as far as the group goes now, I really don’t care–if everybody go their separate ways, they go their separate ways. The only thing I’ll try to fix is me and Anita.” Her eyes moisten. “She gonna have to tell me what I did wrong and then I can tell her I’m sorry. But I’m not gonna leave her alone. I miss her. It used to be that everything I’ve been through Monday to Friday, things that are really heavy on my mind–by the time I got through talking with her and doing something with her on Saturday, I be all right again. Now I don’t be doing nothing these Saturdays.”
On the drive back to the rooming house, Cheryl asks me if I know of any organizations that provide money for diapers to mothers who are broke. I’ve given Cheryl some hand-me-down clothes and toys from time to time, but this is the first time she’s ever even hinted for a handout from me. I give her $7 for a box of Pampers.
We park in front of the rooming house. Cheryl climbs the icy front steps, LaKisha in her arms, and I help Annette and Gwen up. The front door opens; two boys about Gwen’s size see her and giggle gleefully–arms outstretched, anxious to play. Gwen responds with a look of terror. She clenches the box of cookies more tightly and stretches it behind her back, protecting it as if it were a bar of gold. “No!” she shrieks. “No! No! No!”
Cheryl calls me later this afternoon. They’re kicking her out of the rooming house tonight. They told her they were doing this for two reasons, she says: because rent is due today and she doesn’t have it, and because she talked with a reporter.
I reach the director of the rooming house. She insists their intention to evict Cheryl has nothing to do with her talking to me; it’s just because Cheryl can’t pay rent. “She knew what she had to do, but she’s messing up with her money,” the director says. I haggle with her on Cheryl’s behalf, and after ten minutes she says she’ll reconsider. “We’re not in the business of putting someone with little children out in the street in the winter,” she says. “But we have bills to pay.”
I call Cheryl later that evening. She sounds relieved. “They told me I could stay,” she says, “until my next check comes.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustrations/John Zielinski.