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Finding humanity in homelessness.

Patricia Blackwood did not grow up in poverty. She has never had any problems with drugs or alcohol, nor does she have a history of mental illness. But about five-and-a-half years ago, Blackwood found herself living on the street.

She grew up in a middle class home in Edgewater on Chicago's North Side. She went to Catholic school and graduated from college. In 1966, when she was 24, she fell in love and got married, settling down in west suburban Oak Park.

After 17 years, her marriage ended in a divorce, and she was left deeply depressed. Soon after, Blackwood quit her secretarial job to care for her mother, who was struggling with mental illness. When her mother died, Blackwood's depression only deepened, and she could not go back to work. Her money dwindled, and she was eventually evicted from her apartment. In September 1997, Blackwood started sleeping in a public park. After two weeks, she moved into a shelter. Altogether, she was homeless for about five months.

Today, Blackwood is back on her feet. She lives in an Uptown apartment managed by Lakefront SRO, an organization that provides permanent housing and social services for the homeless. Blackwood laughs often. She is writing a book about her experiences with homelessness, which she hopes to finish this year. Already, her poems and short stories have been featured in the Journal of Ordinary Thought, a quarterly publication that features writers who wouldn't normally have the opportunity to be published because of obstacles such as race or class discrimination.

Blackwood shared her story with The Chicago Reporter.

Tell me about your first few nights in the park.

When I first went into the park, I had never even been camping in my life. I picked out a little corner behind some flower beds that I thought would be nice. After a few days, [when workers] discovered I was there, they started turning the sprinklers on at night. So I'd be sleeping and all of the sudden I'd hear this "Plop ... plop ... plop." At first, I wasn't smart enough to realize that I needed a plastic bag to keep my stuff in, so my stuff would get wet.

At night I would end up sleeping on some stone stairs that were behind a statue of some soldiers. If I tried to sleep on a bench, off the ground, the cops would come. They wouldn't bother me as long as I stayed out of sight.

What difficulties did you face living in the park?

You're chronically without sleep--that's probably the worst thing about being homeless. Your health starts breaking down even after a week or two. I had trench foot--the calluses on my feet dissolved and were replaced by sores. There are all kinds of problems that develop. You just can't go on in this climate outdoors.

The real problem with middle class people who become homeless is that they don't know where to turn. I had no idea. I went to [a social service organization] in Oak Park. They were of very little help. I just had the sense that they wanted to get rid of me.

After two weeks in the park, things got really bad. I knew I was going to end up sick, and possibly dead, so I got the idea of going out to O'Hare. [There] I met somebody from Haymarket Center, [a substance abuse treatment organization] that has an outreach program for the homeless, and they told me about [social service agencies in] Uptown. I felt they genuinely were trying to help me, so I took their advice. After that, I got into a shelter and I did not spend another night on the street.

How did you pull yourself out of that hole?

I became a member of the Inspiration Cafe [a program that provides meals and social services for homeless people in Uptown]. They provided me breakfast seven days a week and dinner four days a week. Mostly it was just the human feeling of the place. It was real warm--the first time I walked in there, somebody smiled.

That's how I got into Lakefront [in February 1998], through a caseworker there. It took a total of five months because I didn't have a drug or an alcohol problem. If you don't have those problems, you cannot get housing right away. If you do, you can get off the street within six weeks.

Then I enrolled in an employment program, and I got a job, which I had for nearly four years.

You can't do it alone--you need a lot of help from other people. If you know you're about to become homeless, the best thing you can do is find out where the organizations are that can help.

What do we need to do to address homelessness?

You need sensitivity toward the humanity of people on the street. People objectify the homeless and see them just as bums who got what they deserve. Don't assume that they're no good because they're out there. They're just people like everybody else. A lot of them could not help what happened to them.

What has writing meant to you?

It means a lot, but writing on this subject is painful. I [can't] take the stress of working full-time and writing, [so] I can only work part-time, if I could ever find a job. It's hard because part of me does not want to go back there, but now it's gained its own momentum. I just want people to have a little taste of what it's like. We'd do a lot better if people had a greater understanding of the problem.
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Author:Aaronson, Ben
Publication:The Chicago Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2003
Words:941
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