Houselessness, Mutual Aid and Protecting One Another in Harsh Weather

A few years ago, the team of organizers I work with was contacted by a local business owner. They were concerned about an email thread they had been a part of wherein the local business alliance was trying to recruit local merchants to attend the court hearing of a local houseless woman. That houseless woman, whose name was Jennifer, had lived in the community for years. She had a drinking problem and a number of emotional issues. She could be loud and, at times, insulting. Basically, she was bad for business, and when the business alliance heard that she was facing an open container charge, they decided to use that situation as leverage to remove her from the community.

The merchants involved hoped to get an injunction barring Jennifer from being in their business district. They thought the judge and prosecutor would be willing to broker that deal if enough of them packed the courtroom to speak out about all the trouble she caused. Upon reading this, we quickly realized we needed to pack the courtroom with community opposition to this proposed exile. That task proved much easier than one might imagine, as Jennifer was actually quite loved by a number of people in our neighborhood.

It wasn’t easy for Jennifer to decide to fight this effort to force her out of the neighborhood. She was already coping with a serious illness, and a great deal of emotional strain. Jennifer considered the area her home, and was deeply saddened to hear that some of her neighbors were conspiring to expel her from it. She couldn’t fathom being driven to some strange set of streets where she would no longer lay eyes on familiar faces. “I love the people here,” she told me as I sat with her on a cold sidewalk, discussing her options.

As we sat there, for well over an hour, my fingers and toes grew numb. Amid my discomfort, all I could think was, “This is every hour of every day for her.” She told me that if the business owners got the injunction, she would violate it and go to jail, but added that living out her days in jail might be better than dying on the sidewalk in a Chicago winter. Hearing those words broke something inside of me.

This is where we are as a society – a houseless black woman dying of a terrible illness is faced with death on a cold sidewalk, or death in a cage.

Ultimately, Jennifer put her trust in us, and she prevailed in court. In doing so, she prevented a terrible precedent from being set in our community, and we knew we had to honor her courage. So, we worked with her for months, navigating the maze of public services and non profit assistance for the ill and houseless. It took a team of very competent activists months to secure her permanent shelter and some measure of comfort, so please know this: A person who is broken down by addiction or mental illness, whose mobility is compromised, who has no regular means of transportation, and possibly no identification, stands little chance of working their way through this system alone. Without help, it is all but hopeless.

From Christmas 2012, when a group of us spent the day with Jennifer. It was a full house, and I can’t recall who took the picture. From left to right, that’s Jennifer, myself, and my comrade Lindsey.

I can’t even say Jennifer was one of the lucky ones, because what she was ultimately afforded was far less than she deserved. I visited her in her new home for a while. I repeatedly told her how proud I was of her, but due to being overwhelmed by my own life, I fell out of touch with her during the last months of her life. I take comfort that she passed on in a warm bed, which is the least any human being deserves.

I say this now to remind us all that we have a duty to care for one another. I believe that with every fiber of my being, and I believe that idea is at the core of the kind of world I want to build. That is why I am asking you today to look out for one another. If you hear a local shelter has extended their hours, call to see if they need more food or other resources. If you have extra space heaters or blankets, reach out on social media to see if anyone needs them. If you have extra weather gear, keep it in your car or on your person to give to someone in need. If you live in Chicago, print out or bookmark this list of tips and resources to better assist those in need. The spaces we build are informed by the values we carry with us in our daily lives, so friends, let’s carry them well. And please take care of each other. It’s rough out there.

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