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Walk by Faith, Not by Sight

Wed, May 8, 2013

New to Chicago and victim of fire, couple navigates homelessness

Darvin Chambliss (left) and Elizabeth Ball-Crudup

Darvin Chambliss (left) and Elizabeth Ball-Crudup

My husband, Darvin Chambliss, and I became homeless when a fire broke out in the far North Side apartment building we were going to move into the night before we arrived in Chicago. We were coming from South Bend so he could take a warehouse job.

We found out when we arrived the following day, which was a Thursday.

We had to make do and that’s just what we did. He couldn’t take the job because he didn’t want to leave me alone on the streets. I have epilepsy and he was more concerned with my well being than his own.

So we had to venture out and put our trust in God.

Here we were in Chicago, homeless, we had each other; but most important, we had God on our side.

We asked questions, went to different agencies and received no help, no information.

We prayed and asked God to keep us safe from harm and all things that were not of Him.

On Friday, we decided to go to the park on the lakefront in Uptown. We met a couple there who gave us information. But we had already tried the information that they had given us: to go to the City of Chicago Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS), to try a shelter in Uptown that was for women-only or to go to Pacific Garden Mission (This long-time South Loop shelter has separate sections for men and women.).

We put one foot in front of the other and did our own thing, with God on our side.

For the most part, the agencies don’t help, or they don’t want to help. Their idea of assisting you with things you need is referring you to another agency, and they refer you to another and so on.

The answers we received were: we can’t help. Or the help they offered was to send him (my husband) to one side of town, me to the other. This wasn’t happening. Because of my seizures, my husband refused for us to be separated.

The love we have for each other is so strong. I love that in him, wanting to care for me himself, keeping me close to him, and safe.

They told us to go to a hospital and have them call 311. We did, they never showed up. We were at the hospital until 6:30 a.m. the next morning when we left. The next evening we slept in the park. No fun.

But we never gave up. We kept pushing forward.

Our first Sunday in Chicago, we were standing at Wilson Avenue and Sheridan Road with our suitcases just as an usher was about to close the door for 10:30 a.m. services at Uptown Baptist Church. “My brother and sister, are you coming in?” he said with a welcoming smile.

Darvin and I stood for a minute and then decided to go in. I began attending weekly services while Darvin watched our things. I explained our situation to Pastor Michael Allen and he mentioned the bridge several times in his sermons. UBC members became curious and started to visit.

UBC already gives to the community with open arms through Sarah’s Circle, its women’s day center that provides case management, meals, laundry and computers as well as nighttime shelter. On Monday nights, the church also feeds the community. Darvin and I ate there a few times.

There is a reason we were there: we now have a real church, a real God and belong to a real world that is helping others in their time of need. To our church, we say thank you.

We used our knowledge, Darvin used his military skills and we survived, cold nights, rainy nights, and snowy nights, every step of the way with God on our side. He was stationed in Germany while in the Army from 1982 to 1984.

He built me a cardboard box home about 3 feet by 6 feet from what he found in dumpsters. We laid a four-inch thick base on the ground and put our blankets on top. At night he would stay up and let me sleep.

We became a part of a sometimes-overlooked community at the Wilson Avenue bridge over Lake Shore Drive.

The city would come by without warning, take everyone’s belongings and throw them away. The worst thing is that when they did this, they took all that we had brought with us.

So we had to regroup and get other things, just like starting over again with nothing.

We did just that and survived. The day they did that, I cried, thinking, “God, what are we going to do?”

People told us that sometimes they sleep under the bridge. We figured, “what do we have to lose?” So we went for it.

We slept there at times (a lot). Wherever we went, we took our belongings with us. We got suitcases with wheels. Then we were able to get a month-by-month storage unit in Uptown. Every morning we would get up around 7 a.m., pack our things and take them to our storage unit. In the evening we would go back to our storage unit and bring them back to the bridge. We did this every day for about two months.

The individuals we met would actually listen to us, and that made things a lot easier, knowing someone cared.

We met many people who walked under the bridge going to the lake. Eventually they got to the point where they would stop and talk to us so that they got to know us. One man who lives in Rogers Park pulled his car around after seeing our group under the bridge. His family invited us for Thanksgiving dinner and when he dropped us off again that night, he had given us enough plates for everyone else under the bridge – about 10 persons that night. We still see him on a weekly basis.

We didn’t want their money, just their understanding of what was really going on. All in all, we learned that although we were under the bridge, we were doing better than those who had their own housing because first of all, we have each other and most importantly, we have God.

Darvin and I at the center of a photo with Loyola Academy students and Prof. Trevor Clark, third from left in back row.

Darvin and I at the center of a photo with Loyola Academy students and Prof. Trevor Clark, third from left in back row.

We got this kind of empathy from a group of students from Loyola Academy in Wilmette. Prof. Trevor Clark brings a group every Tuesday evening for a couple of hours just to talk and to learn. They offer hot chocolate and hot dogs, gloves and sometimes jackets and blankets. They are mostly suburban-reared, never exposed to this atmosphere. Clark said they have since opened up their hearts and minds to a better understanding of life in general.

One of the Loyola students painted a picture of Darvin and me and exhibited it in the senior students’ art show. Another student brought his mom and dad and his two younger brothers to meet Darvin and me on Christmas Eve; one girl brought her mom down to meet me on Christmas morning.

Darvin and I at the Loyola Academy senior art show on Valentine's Day at Northwestern University with my portrait in the center above our heads.

Darvin and I at the Loyola Academy senior art show on Valentine’s Day at Northwestern University with my portrait in the center above our heads.

This girl told me I was an inspiration to her because she couldn’t believe a person who was homeless could be so humble but also have so much strength.

All Christmas morning and into the afternoon, it was snowing really hard. About 1 p.m., my husband said, “This is it.”

He made a couple of phone calls and another married couple told us to pack up our things, they were coming for us. We spent Christmas night at their house and they have since helped us with a hotel. These friends had come under the bridge on a regular basis to see us; the lady would talk to us for hours at a time.

She had told me that she had always admired us. She would see us out walking and under the bridge at night, always together. Other times she would see us helping others with the food we had gotten.

I told one of the women under the bridge that we would be back. She responded that everybody says that. But I told her: “We are not everybody. We are Elizabeth and Darvin.”

When we returned to the bridge two days later, the same lady and 10 or so other people were actually surprised. And they asked us this question: “Why are you guys back under here?”

Our answer was: “We could not forget where we had come from. We spent almost three months with you all. And we are here to pass our blessings on. We were blessed, so why can’t we give back.” We had socks, gloves, food, hand warmers, blankets, all from neighborhood stores courtesy of the couple who helped us.

We look at it like this: If God is for us, then who can be against us?

We were taken up to StreetWise in October by Chris Jessup (an aide to Ald. James Cappleman, 46th ward), who had come down to the bridge during one of the sweeps. I made a point of introducing myself to Chris and he gave me his card, as he did to the rest of the people under the bridge. He told us to come to his office at 1 p.m. that same day but Darvin and I were the only ones who did.

Chris connected Darvin to the Jesse Brown Veterans Administration Medical Center and paved the way with other social service agencies that previously said they had been unable to help us. Even the alderman knows us now and waves to us on the street.

The same day, Chris took us upstairs from the alderman’s office to StreetWise. He introduced us to Greg Pritchett, director of distribution and vendor services and Patrick O’Connor, director of workforce development. StreetWise has become a very important part of our lives.

StreetWise has been very supportive and we would like to give a very big “thanks” to StreetWise. For without it, some of our success would not have been possible. So again, we say “thanks.”

First of all, we got love. The people welcomed us. When you are homeless, you go to different places and people look at you differently. But StreetWise helped us out with coats, hats and gloves and allowed us to come in during those cold days, be warm, use a computer, eat and then sell the paper.

We both sold the paper for about a month because we were both given free papers at vendor orientation. We bought essentials like toothpaste and deodorant with my money and magazines with his. But at that time, we were still hauling our suitcases. We walked from Uptown to our sales sites around Clark and Barry and back again. Darvin has been looking for a job since we moved into the hotel, but most of them are way out, so that transportation is a problem. I have applied for disability, which is pending.

In February, I had surgery in the Cook County hospital system through Heartland Health Alliance. Chris had also referred me there but it took two months to get an appointment. Doctors there said that constant hauling and lifting a suitcase was the cause.

I know deep down in my heart that as long as there are people under the bridge, I will always go back just to say hello.

The day we left the bridge, my husband said that there really is a God and that he is a true believer.

It’s like when you are a child with your parents and they hold your hand when you cross the street. God took our hand and has never let us go.

All in all, the most remarkable thing of all, is being called a “love story.” That is what some people call my husband and I.

My husband to me is incredible. Staying up most nights, watching over me while I slept, and keeping me safe.
I love him, I love him, I love him.

The Bridge

The most important thing to remember is that there are people still under the bridge. To some, the bridge is what they call home. They sleep, eat, and keep their belongings there.

The bridge consists of all kinds of individuals, all who have a story to tell, waiting for someone to listen.

Some people feel that if they take food to people under the bridge, they can feel good about themselves. I am not saying the people under the bridge don’t appreciate it (they do), but one of the most important things they need is someone to listen. I chose to listen and learn.

When my husband and I go to the bridge, we are greeted with hugs and kisses, love and smiles. They gave us strength and hope.

Sometimes we spend hours under the bridge, talking, laughing, and letting them know that we care, that we haven’t forgotten them. Ron, sales manager at StreetWise, and Russell, a vendor who also does maintenance, made sure that we could take leftover food from the daily meals at StreetWise to people at the bridge rather than throw it away.

People at the bridge make sure everyone eats. If one person has it, they all have it. That’s what makes them special to me. They care about each other. You have to understand and to understand is to know.

I wrote this story with the assurance that it would be printed the way it really is under the bridge. I didn’t want to sugarcoat the situation, because it is what it is.

I can say this: that when we were there it was a little more structured. Because we were a husband and wife, the others looked up to us. Usually, a crisis of this nature would destroy a couple.

For some, homelessness is a tremendous ordeal. Others grin and bear it. Because if they complain, who will listen? And sometimes it makes it harder on them.

The City harasses them a lot. So most of the time, nothing is said.

If I had the opportunity, financing and backup, no one would be there.

One has to be careful what is said because sometimes, things are better left alone. But I can’t go on and not speak on it: sometimes bridge people are unfairly accused of accosting people who walk by.

The last thing that I want to do is cause them more problems. But if they don’t have a voice, what is it to write about it and not speak on it?

When we visited the bridge on March 5, there were 12 people sleeping there in the cold.

Some of them had wet blankets, because the ceiling was leaking. Others were trying to stay dry, moving from one spot to another, avoiding the drops from the bridge.

Bob, for example, is a white gentleman in his 50s who has been homeless off and on but never gives up. He had been caretaker for his mother. He says that he just deals with his situation and maybe soon, things will change. The Wilson overpass is his favorite spot among others along the north lakefront “because everybody here loves everybody,” he told me.

A white woman in her 50s has been homeless for almost two years. She panhandled on Michigan Avenue and had been to numerous agencies, although she also missed appointments. When I spoke to her on March 18, she was set to get the keys to her own apartment at 1:30 p.m. God worked it out; she is now housed.

Jerry kneels with a woman resident of the bridge.

Jerry kneels with a woman resident of the bridge.

Jerry is a Polish immigrant in his 50s who speaks very little English. He had been working on construction for a man who suddenly closed his business and left without paying his workers. Darvin took him under his wing and showed him how to build a box home for a single person. Being alone, he had been more vulnerable.

On March 16, police went down just before dark and made everyone leave. They threatened them with arrest the next day.

On March 18, I told Darvin I was going to the bridge to finish up this report and no one was there. I saw Jerry about 1½ blocks ahead of me. I followed him to the park south of the bridge under the shelter. There I found five people from under the bridge and I just cried, but I couldn’t leave without doing something for Jerry, so I told him to come with me. My husband and I worked for about two hours to get him into a shelter; it worked out good. Jerry is no longer in the cold, thanks to info from StreetWise. The most amazing thing is that the staff at the shelter asked me if I was his case manager. I told them I was from StreetWise. They said I was an inspiration.

The next day, I went to check on him and they were exactly surprised, they said, “you even do follow up.” They said that doesn’t happen when someone brings a person to a shelter, that’s it. They bring them and just drop them off and they don’t check on the person. I left my phone number and told them they could always call if they needed me.

I must say that I impressed myself on that day with the people skills I showed. It was something that needed to be done, and we were not leaving until I knew he was safe and would be out of the cold.

There are many others I could speak about. Knowing Jerry is great. I know for sure that day we did God’s will.

Also on March 18, I found out that one of the individuals who called the bridge his home passed away over the weekend. He had a heart attack.

Jack marches in a March 6 rally for cubicle hotels outside Ald. James Cappleman's office.

Jack marches in a March 6 rally for cubicle hotels outside Ald. James Cappleman’s office.

Jack, who would come and go at times under the bridge, was an older gentleman.

I remember many times when my husband and I would take them food. He would always say to us, “God bless you” and that he appreciated us.

The last time I saw Jack was on the March 6 protest in front of Ald. Cappleman’s office regarding the cubicle hotels. I took his picture, not knowing it would be the last time I would see him alive.

I consider it a huge blessing from God to have seen him that day. May he rest in peace. He has no more pain.

Ramiro, left, Jose and another woman resident under the bridge.

Ramiro, left, Jose and another woman resident under the bridge.

Jose, meanwhile, was homeless because he has to choose between paying for medication or rent. Another man, Ramiro, is married but intermittently homeless. I saw Jose April 20 at the lake. He has a retail job and is staying with a friend.

As I write this real-life drama, I wonder what is the next move?

It’s kind of hard sometimes to move around, because eight out of 10 times, you have your belongings with you.

We are blessed because we carry ourselves with pride and respect, letting no one bring us down to their level.

People seem to forget that on any given day, this could be them.

It’s not what you do but how you do it. Whatever you do in life, you must be kind and considerate to others.

I used to often wonder what homeless looks like. There is no single face. I know now.

It could be the man across the street wearing a $1,000 suit or the person who works in your office with you. Just because you see a person with bags doesn’t always mean they are homeless. They may be going through transition.

So I ask everyone who reads this story to ask themselves this question. Looks can be deceiving and most times are!

We are not the judge or jury. We should love each other and respect one another.

I just wish that I could take all of their pain away, by helping them.

I do whatever I can for people. I want to be that person that if you need help crossing the street, I will help you, just because I am supposed to in God’s eyes.

My husband and I were able to build the trust that others have in us because we are true believers and go-getters. We have learned that the love we share with others is appreciated. We walk down the street and people know us. Places we go, we are greeted wholeheartedly. Another important thing to remember is: when you give, you receive.

We do this because we love our lives. We love all God’s creation.

But my husband tells me often that I can’t save the world. I just want everyone to have an opportunity to live life to the fullest. Remembering that we are all God’s people and no one is above him.

So I ask that as you read their stories, don’t judge. As they say at StreetWise, “Give a hand up, not a hand out.”

By Elizabeth Ball-Crudup
StreetWise Vendor & Contributor

Editor’s note: Elizabeth Ball-Crudup wrote this story and shot these photos of her experiences at the suggestion of Greg Pritchett, StreetWise director of distribution and vendor services. Editor Suzanne Hanney proofread it with her and urged further details.

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