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A Portrait of Poverty

Like anyone else, Stephanie Hooker never expected she’d be homeless.

By JESSICA CURRY
 Stephanie Hooker says she never grasped homelessness. Growing up in Chicago, she’d see men sitting on the sidewalks and people gathered around Pacific Garden Mission, but the reality of people spending days and nights on the street never hit her. “I really had no idea homelessness existed,” Hooker says. “Nobody could have ever told me I’d be in that situation. I had a little air about myself. I didn’t speak to people that I thought were lesser than myself. But I learned the hard way—when I had to go to these same people to survive. So now I talk to anybody. You want to talk, I’ve got you. The humility set in.”
    The 57-year-old spent almost three decades being homeless, living without a home in New York, Michigan and Chicago.
    Born in Pittsburgh but raised in Chicago, Hooker says she was used to “a better way of life” until she lost everything. With a high school education and a solid family, she’d always been employed, with jobs such as home health aid, being a cashier at Walgreen’s, working at the post office and factory work.
    “I’ve always had a decent life until I got married and went through domestic violence,” says Hooker, who adds that she seemed to always pick the same type of guy. “The main cause of all my homelessness was domestic violence. It was a whole life change for me. I saw things I never saw before—things I heard about, but didn’t know existed. Now I’ve got to come off my high horse, learn to deal with this situation and remember that I’m like them now. It rearranges your whole temperament. I think the streets made me mean. You say two words to me, and I go on the defensive. I think I was a better person without experiencing homelessness.”
    With a head of black ringlets and a face speckled with moles and freckles, Hooker talks about her life from across a table in the common room at Deborah’s Place, a source of housing and support for homeless women, where she’s called home for the last three and half years. Her first experience of homelessness was decades ago in New York City. She had fled there with her baby daughter to escape an abusive relationship with her husband, but life there was grueling, with little food and nowhere to stay. When Hooker went to apply for assistance and food stamps, they said she needed to live there for a minimum of six months to receive anything.
    “All my family was in Chicago, but I didn’t want to be bothered with anybody and nobody to know my situation, so I went to New York, where [no one] knew where I was,” Hooker says. “It was an issue of pride for me. I didn’t want anybody to know what I was going through, with [my partner] and that I was homeless because they had such high standards for me, so I didn’t write or call anybody to let them know where I was at.”
    Friends would relay news back to Chicago on Hooker’s whereabouts, but by then, she was living on the streets. She says she’d find people to take care of her daughter, while she looked for a place to step in for the night, which usually ended up being a bar.
    “Most of the time I’d stay at bars until they’d close at 4 o’clock in the morning, so that led to a drinking problem,” says Hooker, talking frankly, but with a smile of acceptance. She did that for three years, and simultaneously, for a period, went to school for speedwriting and typing for Chemical Bank. “They were [going] to hire me when I finished this six-month class, but by the end of the six months, I had gotten so burned up from going place to place and staying up all night that I never did get the job. So back to the drawing board I was.”
    Hooker says she became increasingly angry and continued to drink more, as she looked for jobs, but had little success and couldn’t get welfare. “Hopelessness did set in. I’m on medication for depression now from all those years.” When life in New York seemed to have nothing more to offer, she left everything and disappeared into the night, heading to Ann Arbor, Mich., where she had in-laws.
    “It’s funny because that’s when you see just what your relatives really think about you,” Hooker says. “Every time something came up missing, they would say maybe I had it. They come up with any little nitpicking thing to get you out of there. You’re supposed to be so welcome at first, but after you’re there, they don’t really want you in their lives.”
    It was a slightly easier to find work in Michigan, but they were all part-time jobs, like one at Kroger’s where they paid $5 an hour. But working 20 hours a week never translated into enough money for Hooker to actually pay for an apartment. Michigan also gave her $121 every two weeks, along with food stamps.
    “But after you don’t find a job for so long, [welfare] cuts you off, so there I was, on my way back to Chicago,” Hooker says. “In Chicago, I left my daughter with my mother since she would keep her. I scuffled around and would stay with friends until they put me out.”
    When there were no friends left to stay with, Hooker moved from shelter to shelter and would spend nights on the street when she couldn’t get into one. A shelter she stayed at on Wilson and Broadway developed a lottery system, so no matter who was first in line, if they pulled your number, you couldn’t get in—so she’d sometimes ride the “L” all night or sleep in a park.
    “It was like gambling,” Hooker says. “The people who couldn’t get into the shelters would get blankets together and go sleep in the park. When it was cold, I learned how to get in buildings. All you do is go into a tall building with someone and when they get off at their floor, you push basement and go down to the basement. We’d hide there all night, sleep and stay warm. No matter how brave and tough you get on the streets, you can’t fight this cold.”
    Groups would develop within the homeless community, according to Hooker, for protection and support on the street, where she says she experienced a lot of violence and aggression. “People talk to you in any kind of way. You really hate to ask people for anything. It’s a struggle in anything you do, so you become a clan. We all stick together. We eat together, we sleep in parks together—nine or 10 of us. Believe it or not, we still coupled off. Everyone was still claiming a man. He was your protector at night.”    Homeless in Chicago and by then in her 50s, Hooker still tried to find jobs, like at the Hilton Hotel, where she used to be employed, but couldn’t get hired. “The economy is bad—it’s hard getting a job,” she says. “I used to go out and put in application after application, but I really got disgusted when they looked at my age. I applied for a job in Hyde Park, and the man told me he’d get back to me, but I saw a young girl come in from high school, and he told her to come back Monday. So I was very offended.”
    It was then that Hooker reached what she remembers as the lowest point in her life. She was depressed, crying all the time. Life seemed hopeless and death near. “I finally woke up and realized I was tired of drinking, I was tired of fighting this problem, and I went to the doctor, got myself a psychiatrist and started doing things a little different,” she says. “I had made up my mind that I couldn’t keep living like that. I was preparing to die. I felt like death would be better than what I was going through, and I knew it was time to get real help. I picked up the ropes and started applying for low-income apartments.”
    While staying at a respite center through Mount Sinai Hospital, a caseworker gave Hooker applications for low-income apartments, along with an application for Deborah’s Place. And after one year, she received a letter saying her number was up and could move into one of the Deborah’s Place locations, where rent is 30 percent of one’s income and residents can live indefinitely. Hooker describes the studio apartments as “wonderful,” providing residents with “everything you need for your first chance at independent living.” She says how glad she is to live there, shaking her keys.
    “For someone who’s always had a home, it’s not something you think about, but the key is such a powerful instrument and representation of home and your own home and a new beginning,” says Rebecca Milbert, external relations coordinator at Deborah’s Place.
    At Deborah’s Place, Hooker says she became computer literate and enjoys playing Scrabble and learning from the 90 other women living in the building.
    “A lot of the girls here, you would never know that they’ve been homeless before,” Hooker says. “Once you clean them up and they’ve got that key, everyone becomes important again to themselves. It builds their self-esteem. We have job assistance here. There are classes, like anger management and Beautiful Me—learning to feel good about yourself again.”
    Hooker thought about training programs and going back to school, but once she started working with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and speaking for them two to three times a month, she says she found her passion.
    “Fighting for the homeless is my job now,” she says. “That’s what I like to do. As a leader and an organizer, I give the homeless a chance to help us get the bills passed. We take busloads of homeless people to Springfield to help lobby and pass out cards to senators. They get to fight for themselves. It’s hard to get people to come out. Their self-esteem is down, and they’re afraid to speak. When you say shake hands with the senator, it’s a big step, but I offer them that step.”
    With her daughter now 38 and a lawyer at Jenner and Block and her own work now purposeful, Hooker says that “life is good.” When asked what brings her joy, she says herself. “Thank the Lord. I’m here, and I have everything I need.”
    At a time she describes as particularly challenging for poverty and homelessness, Hooker’s work will continue. With the job situation difficult, public housing being torn down and cuts in general assistance and food stamps, she says people have to just “try and try until something comes through.”  According to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, over the course of a year, approximately 166,000 people experience homelessness in the metropolitan Chicago area.
    “People today have the same reasons I had for being homeless,” Hooker says. “You either didn’t make enough money, you were unemployed, abused, wind up drinking and drugging while you’re out there—it’s all the same. Everybody’s got a similar story. Homelessness doesn’t differentiate between people. You’re all going to wind up in the same situation.”

Published: February 07, 2008
Issue: February 08 Money Issue