Activism | Greater Grand Crossing | Housing | Interviews

How to See the City’s Hidden

Having spent her youth homeless, Anne Holcomb is working to help Chicago’s neediest kids

ALLIE TOREM

ALLISON TOREM

Anne Holcomb was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1961, and spent her childhood and young adulthood in varying states of homelessness. Today she works for Unity Parenting & Counseling, and has served on the Homeless Youth Advocacy Committee for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) since the nineties. She’s been instrumental in the opening of Ujima Village, an overnight shelter for homeless youth now at 73rd Street & South Yale Avenue. Before Ujima opened last August, there hadn’t been an emergency youth shelter on the South Side for thirty years. Holcomb has also spent the last three years rehabbing a four-flat in South Shore to live in and rent to organizations like the UCAN LGBTQ Host Home Program and the Hyde Park Transitional Housing Project, mimicking a model she created while getting herself off the street in Indianapolis. Holcomb met Studs Terkel at CCH’s 2004 Hope Fest. “It was kind of a conversation that was left dangling by the environment,” she says.

Most homeless youth don’t look homeless any more than I did, but if you know you can tell. It’s so subtle that it’s hard to articulate—it can be anything from body posture to what time of day somebody’s carrying a very full backpack to how they’re walking. Homeless youth walk all the time. Homeless youth walk without having a direction. It’s the speed at which somebody walks, it’s the confidence with which they walk. If I see the same person consistently on the corner and they’re not doing something like selling drugs, I might walk up to them. I’ve got radar eyes for who’s homeless and who’s not.

When I was in high school, I never saw myself as homeless. My father was extremely mentally ill and very abusive; everybody in our house got a different form of abuse. He would twist my arm behind my back, because that’s how he could control me. Starting in kindergarten, he’d drag me around the house to try to show me all the places where my mother was not a good mom or a good wife. He’d rub my fingers in the dust on windowsills and he’d force my hand to make a bed. One time he got particularly mad and was rubbing my hand in the spills on the stovetop, and it was still very hot so I burned my finger. Stuff like that.

When I got older and even more resistant, he’d grab me by my ankle. He’d drag me around the house, and we had a staircase…my knee is still messed up from that. The older I get the more it impacts me, the fact that my ligaments and tendons were so stretched out. I think I’m probably left-handed, but I would write right-handed in school. It wasn’t because teachers were telling me to, it was because my left wrist hurt. It’s kind of a blessing now, that I can write with both hands.

My father agreed to take me to school every day, but he couldn’t get up to do it. I was thirteen, in eighth grade, and I really wanted to go to school. Sometimes it would take me an hour or two to get him out of bed, and one day I got exasperated and poured water on his head. He woke up boxing, grabbed me by my hair, and put my head through a grandfather clock. I smacked him as hard as I could; that’s the only time in my life I ever fought back. And I said, “If you do this again, I’m either going to kill you or I’m going to call the police.” That was the last time he put a hand on me.

I started having a lot of slumber parties, so when he was really bad I would just not be home. I would stay for a week at one friend’s house, and then I would call someone else and go stay a week at their house. I told two friends who also had abuse in their families what my situation was, but most people really didn’t know. Nowadays we would definitely call that homelessness, but back then I just was getting out of the house.

There was about a three- or four-year period when my dad was almost not depressed—almost. He made a lot of promises during that period, and I wanted to believe that he was going to be okay. So I believed him, and it was a big mistake. He promised to pay one third of my education, and I made some decisions based on that. The crap kind of hit the fan my junior year of college at DePauw at Indiana. It got pretty crazy; I worked myself into double pneumonia and I didn’t graduate with my class. When I got out of school, I had nowhere to go.

Eventually I got an apartment in Indianapolis. One day I came back from a job interview, and the landlord had taken the lock off my apartment and taken everything. It didn’t even occur to me at first that it was the landlord, because I’d always paid the rent on time. That was one thing I always did: I couldn’t pay my student loans, couldn’t always pay the utilities, but I knew I needed to pay my rent. It turned out he was quite the slumlord. He knew that I was naïve and vulnerable, and that I was living there without electricity. I think he thought my parents would come to the rescue with their wallets. I was in my early twenties and wearing green linen suits, you know? I looked like I had something.

I slept in the park that night. I didn’t have any street skills; I knew more about how to get into something like the legal profession than I knew how to navigate poverty. It was probably a good month before I heard from another street kid that there was a legal aid agency.

What I found, and what’s still true, is that with homeless youth the experience is more fluid than it is for adults. If you have money you’ll get a hotel room, or maybe a friend will have an apartment you can stay in until they get a boyfriend. I was in and out, in and out, in and out for five years after that.

I always had a job, the whole time I was homeless. I probably had fifty jobs in Indianapolis, often two or three at the same time. I would sleep in University Park, and I had to get up early for the breakfast shift at nine. In the park the traffic was my alarm clock, and it would get me up in time to get to work. Getting cleaned up was interesting—I’d have to walk quite a ways to a McDonald’s and they had blow-dryers you could flip up to dry your hair. I kept myself clean and presentable to do food service. I was twenty-two.

I’d gotten jumped a couple times staying in a hotel, and I thought, “I’m going to be safer if I just go live in an abandoned building and nobody knows I’m there.” I was right. I found a Queen Anne house built in 1865, right on the edge of a gentrifying area called Lockerbie Square. That house helped lift me out of poverty, and I graduated from college in that house. I was missing two credits for graduation, because I’d had the double pneumonia, and so I actually took classes at IUPUI [Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis] to finish up. So I was living in an abandoned building with no working utilities when I did that. I paid the tuition in cash; I certainly wasn’t going to get any more student loans.

Eventually I went down to the City Hall and found the owner. He was an old Greek guy, a veteran of World War II, and he was real cool with me living there. He said all I had to pay was $100 a month. He was a little bit of an eccentric, which was exactly the kind of person I needed at that point.

He asked me if I wanted to buy the house, and I said, “Sure!” He said, “I’ll sell it to you for $5,000. I can’t keep up with this stuff.” I started renting rooms as soon as I got the utilities up and running. Some of the people who I’d known on the street who had gotten themselves better, and other people that they knew. I had eight bedrooms. There was this guy who was a Vietnam vet who knew electricity, so I gave him a place to live. There was another guy I gave free rent to because he helped me patch the roof. He also helped me put up some vinyl siding, and that’s where I got caught.

The area was historical because the guy who wrote the poem “Little Orphan Annie” had lived just a couple blocks away, and they were making the whole thing a historical area. If the material was not around in the 1860s or 1870s, you couldn’t use it. I got busted for the vinyl siding and having a pink flamingo in my yard, and I realized that I was not going to be able to afford the materials that were used in the 1870s. Little Orphan Annie brought me down, and that was the beginning of the end of the house.

The last two and a half years I was in Indianapolis I had a nice little apartment, and my life had a groove. I also felt really isolated. In some ways it was a hard time in my life, because  no one in my current world had ever been through anything like what I’d been through.

Several members of my street family died very young. One was murdered in a hate crime—homeless people are attacked sometimes because they’re homeless. My friend was drinking and fell asleep in the doorway of an abandoned church, and some people came along and beat him to death. I wasn’t going to go around talking about that in the posh part of the city where I was working.

That was in the later part of the 1980s, when homelessness was just starting to get known and people were building shelters in church basements and things like that. In Chicago the homeless crisis really started in 1979 or the next year. That’s when they started forming the Coalition for the Homeless, which still exists. Bigger cities realized there was a problem before smaller cities did.

In Indianapolis I began working with Housing Now, and was finally faced with whether or not I was going to come out of the closet about the fact that I had been homeless. I decided to tell the truth, and that’s when I started talking about my own homelessness publicly—October of 1989. When I came back from a march in Washington, D.C., all my coworkers had seen me on TV. The food and beverages manager at my job didn’t want to go out with me anymore. I came back and put my lunch down and they all got up and moved to another table. The people at my other job, at the Indianapolis Symphony, gave me a promotion.

Mitch Snyder [a leading advocate for the homeless] had told me, “If you want to do something about homelessness, you’ve got to get out of Indiana. You need to go to New York, San Francisco, or Chicago.” I moved here in 1991, and I started getting involved with Walk for the Homeless. I realized I really wanted to change careers—I was earning a really nice income, but I really wanted to do something about homelessness.

I worked for Night Ministry for ten years, but eventually felt a strong compulsion to start putting my energy into the South Side. I really saw the difference—there’s so much institutional racism and classism. Even the homelessness services on the North Side are better. You can get volunteers who aren’t afraid to go to Wicker Park or to Lakeview. The North Side is in the news more. Even traffic reports only cover the North Side. We have such a huge swath of the city that’s almost invisible, it’s crazy.

Ujima’s only been open a year, so I don’t have as much of a longitudinal view, but I’ve seen some miracles happen. I heard the youth talking about me in the back of the bus yesterday, saying, “Man, she’s cool!” The fact that they can actually say that about an adult, when their own parents have kicked them out of the house? That’s incredible. The worst choice I made in my own adolescence was believing that my father would pay for a third of my education. You want your parents to be your parents. A lot of homeless youth come from very fractured families, families that were fractured for a long time before the youth became homeless. Most homeless youth are not homeless because they’re bad kids; that’s the stereotype. Sometimes kids make bad choices, but they’re kids. What kid doesn’t make bad choices?

I think sometimes that the fact that I’m living and breathing breaks down the stereotype by itself. I wasn’t a bad kid, I was homeless, and I’ve made a success of my life. At this point I’m comfortable in my own skin. I’m a pretty happy person. Ujima is a port of entry to more stable living, and we try to get anyone who comes to us plugged into things that address the larger issues of why they’re homeless. It’s so important to not throw homeless youth away—these kids don’t have to become our next generation of homeless adults.

For more information about Ujima Village and other services for the homeless, go to chicagohomeless.org or unityparenting.org

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