Melinda Rogers was a working mom panhandling at Madison and Dearborn when StreetWise founder Judd Lofchie first met her in August 1992. He asked her to become one of the original vendors (she has badge #200 of more than 9,700 issued since) and to help him recruit other vendors on Lower Wacker Drive, the Loop and Michigan Avenue.
Rogers said she had been featured in the Chicago Reader as a top woman scavenger. She collected aluminum, copper, brass, cans, wire, “whatever I could get my hands on,” in order to feed and clothe her twin daughters, Jemeika and Deja, who were just 6 at the time.
“Before StreetWise came along, I could manage a motel sometimes but a lot of times we slept outside in Grant Park,” Rogers said. The girls stayed in their stroller and Rogers remained watchfully awake. They showered at the workout center in the park.
“The kids played,” she said. “I didn’t let the kids see the stress that was going on. You put that stress on them, the kids freak out. You handle it, you don’t let the kids handle it. Let the kids be kids and go on do what they’re doing.”
Becoming a StreetWise vendor meant Rogers could move her family into a motel.
The girls would be with her in the morning while she sold papers before they went to school. Then she would continue selling until she picked them up and they would go back to the motel to eat.
A mother’s structure can provide stability, she said.
“Just because you’re homeless don’t mean you’re stupid. You can go to the library and let the kids do their homework or to McDonald’s or Dunkin Donuts and let the kids sit there. Just because you are homeless you don’t have to be hopeless.”
Rogers made learning fun in the motel. She set up a chalkboard in the tub so the girls could spell out words and bathe at the same time. “Little kids comprehend but they comprehend faster when you make learning a game instead of — whoo. [You need to] be the opposite of the teacher in school that have them focus and focus. ‘It’s OK. It’s time to play a game now.’ ”
Rogers was born at Cook County Hospital 52 years ago but her mother left her there. Her grandmother took her home and raised her until age 11 when her mother took her back. Rogers says she aimed to do better with her own daughters in terms of providing education and encouragement.
“My kids are 27 years old. They never did drugs and they don’t do alcohol. Neither one of them is pregnant. From Head Start all the way to where they are at now they graduated with honors.”
The reason for the girls’ success, Rogers says, is that she let them see street people abusing drugs, alcohol and sex, which scared them. “ ‘This is not the way young ladies are supposed to be,’ ” she told them. “By me and my kids being on the street, it showed them to be the opposite of what everyone else is.”
Jemeika has a bachelor’s degree but wants a master’s and PhD. Deja is working on her master’s degree. Rogers says the twins were highest ranked on the debate team at Senn High School, where they also did four years of Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) and came out as captain and lieutenant, Rogers said.
Rogers herself spent two years at DeVry Institute and graduated from business college and nurses’ aide training. “It was mental depression that kept me from going where I wanted to go,” she said. “I coulda did a lot of things but my mind was not there.” She had been raped in the past.
Rogers says she was moving up as a StreetWise vendor until November 1999, when she developed cancer and then lost her apartment a month later. She beat the cancer and went back to StreetWise until a recurrence in 2003. Then, she gave up on StreetWise and everything else until 2011.
She returned to selling the magazine and running the StreetWise Work Empowerment Center one day a week in order to fight mental depression. “I got to be around certain people that I can actually feel comfortable around.”
Rogers still has cancer and blood in back of both eyes. She is working on getting laser surgery to avoid going blind. “I am not gonna let stuff get me down because God has got me here for a purpose; I don’t know what but I guess he will let me know in time. I keep a smile on while I am living on a train or if not on a train, in a hotel. All I want is a one-bedroom apartment. I would be the happiest girl on Earth.”