Ellen Hao

There but for the Grace of God go I” is a phrase I often hear said by those witness to someone else’s misfortune. When the misfortune is homelessness, people often say how they are only one paycheck away from homelessness themselves. Yet for the majority, that one paycheck continues to come and the roof remains over their head, no matter how precariously.

I have lost my roof three times. I don’t believe I ever fell from any type of grace, but I did fall through the cracks each time. The homeless population has forever been composed of people navigating a variety of circumstances. Still, the rules always seemed clear: if you don’t pay the rent, you lose the apartment. Simple, right? But things are not always as they seem, and rarely are they simple.

The first time I lost my roof was in the summer of 1990. I was in my mid-twenties, newly divorced, and determined to not ask anyone for anything. I worked three jobs seven days a week to keep a studio apartment in Lakeview that I had crammed full—though quite stylishly—with what had previously been comfortably spread out over a 2000-square-foot loft. Was I exhausted most of the time? You bet. But having my very own place on my own terms was the reward. I never missed a rent payment, and I was considering upgrading to a one-bedroom apartment at my lease’s end.

Then one of my part-time jobs as a note-taker for disabled students at the City Colleges of Chicago was eliminated,  delaying my payment of one month’s rent. Typical rental leases stipulate that rent is due on the first of each month, with a five-day grace period. If rents are not paid within the grace period a landlord’s five-day notice is issued, advising the tenant that court proceedings for the landlord to retain possession to their apartment will begin. Once the process begins, the tenant is at the mercy of the landlord and the court, and eviction is likely unless an arrangement can be made. If the tenant knows this information, they know how to proceed. But if they don’t know, it becomes a very different story. The summer of 1990, I learned the hard way.

After missing only one month of rent, I was summoned to appear in court. I had no desire to vacate my apartment and had the one month of rent I thought I was being sued for in hand at the hearing, so I appeared in court with only my mom and no attorney. I would pay the money and the matter would be resolved—right? Wrong.

My case was called. I approached the bench a cheerful defendant, my happy little money order in hand. The plaintiff’s attorneys representing Wirtz Realty began spouting off lawyer jargon, all foreign to me. When my time to speak came, I told the court I wanted to pay the one month of rent in question. The judge asked the Wirtz attorneys if they were prepared to accept my payment. They said they were not, and a judgment for possession was ordered and stayed thirty days. I still have no idea what’s going on. All I know is I have the money. I want to pay it and go home, or at least go back to one of my jobs. I had no idea I was being sued not for the rent but for possession of the apartment.

Since the attorneys were not prepared to accept my payment and I was still unaware I had been sued not for late rent but for possession of my apartment, I left the courtroom and went immediately to the Wirtz Realty/Chicago Blackhawks (yes, same company) offices to make my payment in person. It was a classic case of the right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing: my payment was accepted. I was given a receipt that showed I was current with no outstanding balance, and I went on with my day.

Shortly after, I received my next month’s rent statement by mail, as usual, which I paid promptly. Weeks later, but before the next statement was mailed, my mom and I met up to go see a movie, but I needed to make a quick stop at home first. As we took a shortcut a block away from the street where I lived, my mom noticed a boldly printed pillowcase on the ground.

“Hey, don’t you have some sheets like that?” she asked me. Glancing quickly, thinking someone must have dropped theirs on the way to doing laundry, I answered that I did. A little further on, my mom spied a curious one-of-a-kind lamp propped against a chain-link fence. She stopped dead in front of it and asked urgently, “Don’t you have a lamp like that too?” An uneasy feeling crept up my chest. I answered yes and walked faster. When I reached my apartment, the curbside was scattered with the remains of the entire contents of my apartment, now reduced to some file folders, papers that used to be inside file cabinets, and a few books.

My lifetime of possessions had been evicted and hauled off by people driving up in trucks to help themselves. I had accumulated some very nice things of both monetary and sentimental value that could never be replaced––but it  was hard to convince the fine folks from Wirtz Realty when I became the plaintiff suing them. In their thinking, since I was a young Black woman late on a month’s rent in a studio apartment, my belongings—my oil paintings, my jewelry, my vintage record collection—couldn’t have amounted to much more than a bean bag and a lava lamp. After years of dragging on the proceedings, with condescending, dismissive remarks carried back to me by way of my attorney, we settled out of court for an amount I agreed to only in frustration. Thirty years later, whenever I see that Native American head logo, I still throw up a little.

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After that day, I was able to return to my family home for six months while I rebuilt my life and moved to Hyde Park-Kenwood, where I would spend the next twenty-one years—thirteen of them in the same apartment—until the neighborhood gentrified and I was priced out. But along the road to being priced out, there were some bumps: changes in pay structures at a longtime high-income job, my mother’s catastrophic illness, and having to leave a company in order to cash out my 401K so I could care for her.

During my thirteen years in the same apartment, there were three instances when my rent was late and the whole court process started. I moved the final time; but the other two times I was able to make arrangements to pay the money owed before appearing in court, and did not have to vacate my apartment. Nevertheless, because the simple act of filing a suit against a tenant is considered an eviction—no matter the outcome of any subsequent arrangements—it now appears on my tenant history as if I had been evicted from the same apartment in the same building three different times between 1999 and 2012, which is both impossible and difficult to explain once you try to lease another apartment. Since all prospective landlords see on paper is eviction, they have no interest in the circumstances, which often are not evictions at all. In 2013, having cleared all the other requirements, I was moments away from acquiring an affordable housing unit at a Holsten property in Edgewater—until my rental history of pseudo-evictions surfaced.

When my Hyde Park high-rise rent skyrocketed to nearly double the original value, I lost my roof a second time. By then, I no longer had a family home to retreat to, nor a family. I did have a friend also in a housing crisis, who had walked away from a home she was so far underwater in she was drowning, and I was able to squat there for nearly a year. I was technically not homeless either time, since I was indoors with a place to sleep—but neither my family home nor my friend’s foreclosed townhouse was my own address.

This last (and what I intend to be final) bout with homelessness is a little trickier. A short unemployment coupled with a lengthier underemployment caused me to be sued for eviction from my last apartment. Although the circumstances were not of my choosing, I had wanted to move from my last apartment the day I moved in, during September of 2014, making the loss of that particular roof practically a step up.

Nestled on one of the sketchiest blocks in South Shore is one of those awful apartments you are forced to rent after your rental history becomes tainted with the appearance of several false evictions. It was a slum-lorded building infested with mice and tenants who couldn’t care less about how they cared for the place they called home—so property management  couldn’t care less either. At one point my unit had no working toilet for nineteen days. Regardless of how clearly I explained the problem, management told me my particular brand of toilet paper was causing the problem. This, of course, was ridiculous, and they eventually replaced the substandard malfunctioning toilet, after a colorful letter hand-delivered with a box of candy.

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For the time being I have landed in a clean, safe, warm dwelling, but it is not my own. I have no address. I now have a job I love, a modest hourly wage, and the potential for it to grow into a career. There are systems and agencies in place that claim they work to prevent or end homelessness, but they are difficult to navigate. So far I have learned that if I were disabled, a senior citizen, or a veteran, I would move to the top of some imaginary list I have yet to be privy to, and my own roof would become a reality in a matter of days. I have connected with a social worker and have been issued a Homeless Management Information System number intended to assist me in accessing services to assist homeless persons, but so far all it has amounted to is my answering a detailed list of highly personal questions for data collection purposes.

When I reached out to the office of one of my elected officials, someone from his office put me in touch with an affordable housing online portal I had already researched and determined to be useless; much of the information was outdated or listed in error. In one instance,  dialing what was supposed to be a Kenwood affordable apartment, I reached a South Loop pizzeria. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, meanwhile, has a number of “affordable” and subsidized units available for people who qualify. I have been told I now fit the criteria, but the units are always filled, and instructions as to how to be placed on waiting lists are vague. I also received the Chicago Low-Income Housing Subsidy Trust Fund list of properties with available units, but the units are all filled or in places like my last apartment. Many of the properties are not even aware they are on the Trust Fund list and are perplexed when an inquiry is made about their subsidized units. But even though these properties told me upfront that their subsidized units were all full, they each asked how much was I allotted for securing a unit—as if the right figure would somehow open up a unit for me.

So what happens now? Your guess is as good as mine. I work every day. I have a rental history tainted with false evictions, and I have no living family. I’m luckier than most: I sleep indoors each night with food in my stomach. But the systems in place designed to help people like me who fall not from grace, but through the cracks, are failing me. Meanwhile, so much new construction is springing up all over the city, particularly in the Hyde Park neighborhood I called home for nearly a quarter of a century, but I have no access to it. My income is a fraction of what it once was, and rents continue to skyrocket, pricing out people like me, who after a history of restrictive covenant laws have endured this too many times. I have worked every year of my life since I was fifteen years old and paid plenty of taxes. Surely some of that money can be put to work for people like me. Everyone needs a clean, safe, quality place to call home. But for now, I have no address.

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