When we think about what homelessness looks like, it is likely that many of us conjure up imagery of people bound to the streets with nowhere to go. While this may be the reality for many, it is not the reality for everyone experiencing homelessness. According the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless 2017 count for homeless Chicago residents, 81% of Chicagoans experiencing homelessness were doubled-up in the homes of others, often in overcrowded conditions. This means that a majority of people experiencing homelessness in the city may technically have a roof over their heads, but those living situations are unstable and at risk of crumbling at any moment.
Keisha Wallace knows that reality all too well. A lover of music, the arts and spending time with her family, Keisha spent a large chunk of her life experiencing homelessness. On top of that, she was adamant about making sure nobody knew what she was going through.
“I was homeless, but no one knew I was homeless. That includes my family. I think that was probably because I was embarrassed more than anything,” said Keisha. “I stayed on trains for several months, whereas sometimes I would be spending the night at a friend’s house. They would assume that I was still in my own place but they didn’t know that I was staying with them because I didn’t have nowhere else.”
This happened for Keisha on and off for years, but her housing instability did not stop her from living a full life. Keisha had a daughter with her girlfriend at the time in 2003, worked in a management position at Starbucks for over 10 years and later became a certified massage therapist. However, while Keisha was working as a Chicago tour guide for a double-decker bus company in 2013, she had a life-altering accident on the job.
“I was driven into a tree while I was giving a tour to a group of University of Chicago students,” said Keisha. “I was smacked from behind and ended up having to get taken from the bus by an ambulance.”
Years ago, Keisha was diagnosed as having seizures and even briefly went on a medication meant to prevent them. However, because her condition did not affect her every day and the medication had negative side effects, Keisha decided not to take it. She had a few sporadic seizures on occasion, but never anything that she was concerned about. This all changed after the accident.
“In September of 2013, when I had that accident, the very next month I had 5 episodes,” Keisha recalled. “That was more in one month that I had in my entire life … it was a major change.”
The bus tour company Keisha worked for let her go after the accident, and eventually she lost her other job as a massage therapist after having a seizure at work. The seizures made it difficult for Keisha to find a steady income and eventually pushed her into chronic homelessness. She moved around from house to house, staying with different family and friends again, but still did not have a place of her own.
Keisha spent her time working to reach a settlement with her former employer, the tour bus company, defending her right to access disability benefits since she was unable to work, and keeping up with her doctor’s appointments to keep her seizures under control. All of this while still trying to be a good, attentive mother to her daughter just added layers of stress to Keisha’s already stressful life. However, Keisha finally caught a break when she received a call from Emily, a Flexible Housing Pool (FHP) outreach worker from Renaissance Social Services.
“Emily reached out to me at the end of April, right before my daughter’s spring break … Emily called me out of the blue and, I’m not going to lie, I almost hung up on her,” said Keisha. “She was like, ‘Hi, my name is Emily and I’m with the Flexible Housing Pool. I am calling because we got you name off of a database about housing and I was wondering if you’d be interested in housing?’ I’m at the doctor when she’s calling thinking, ‘Uh… okay, yeah!’ She was literally about 5 seconds from being hung up on … I’m glad that I actually heard her.”
The FHP is a program focused on making communities healthier by creating more permanent supportive housing the Center for Housing and Health (CHH). CHH then coordinates efforts with community-based housing organizations throughout the Chicagoland area to provide housing, health care and supportive services to program participants.
Emily and Keisha met a week after talking on the phone to enroll Keisha in the program. After she returned from visiting family during her daughter’s spring break, Keisha was connected with another social worker who helped her get approved for a housing voucher. By the end of May, Keisha was on the hunt for her new home. She found her current apartment in the Woodlawn area in July and was officially moved in by mid-August 2019.
“It was a little strange the first couple of nights,” said Keisha as she recalled what it was like when she first moved into her new apartment. “It was … a little lonely and what not and I’m missing my baby and her momma too because that’s my family. But that saying that people say, ‘It’s nothing like having your own’ … it ain’t nothing like having your own place at all.”
Keisha regularly meets with her case manager Molly from Deborah’s Place to make sure she is connected to the services she needs to stay healthy and the resources that will help her achieve her personal goals. While she is still working through the legal issues with her former employer and has a number of other stressors in her life, having a place of her own makes things a lot easier to manage. Keisha is still adjusting to her new lifestyle but is now focused on making her apartment a true home, rather than just a place where she sleeps at night.