Jill and Lily’s Story
As nurture is a crucial element in human development, growing up in a home which lacks it can result in unpredictable impacts. Siblings usually have each other’s backs. Younger siblings typically know that they can come to their elder siblings for things deemed inappropriate for parental discussion in return for all the years of keeping their mouths shut about the elder siblings sneaking off when they were supposed to be babysitting us. Then, later in life, siblings are supposed to become your very best friends; ones you can go to about anything and know that they’ll be there in full support without any judgment.
While this scenario is ideal, it was not my reality. When growing up in an unsupportive household that requires competition for attention and nurture, the strength of the invisible bond between siblings begins to weaken, and continues to unless a realization is made that they are, indeed, on the same team. Unfortunately, I, the youngest of my sisters, was the only one who could see that the tension weakening our bonds could be pinpointed to the scarcity of nurture that had been available to us. Instead of standing together as allies, our relationships became more and more toxic, as did those with other family members. Eventually, after raising a daughter of my own, I realized I could not continue on this cycle of neglect and toxicity. I wanted more for my daughter; I never wanted her to have to question her worth because of something I could control.
We were living in North Chicago at the time. In addition to unfavorable family circumstances, the city was toxic in itself. While I had been victorious in obtaining a seat on the school board, and had been successful in exposing exploitation in two different cases, the community was, overall, corrupt and unsupportive. Everyone was out for themselves. Trust was non-existent, which meant that no one was deserving of assistance. I once received glares and negative remarks when I tried buying a new student ID for a young boy who had broken his so that he would be able to eat lunch. Because he broke it, the responsibility was on him to get a new one. (The kid was expected to take responsibility for the plastic breaking on his ID, but his family couldn’t afford a new one so he was then left to suffer without lunch.)
Because of the undesirable conditions we were surrounded by, I decided to jump on an opportunity to move me and my daughter across the northern border of Illinois and into western Wisconsin, my dad’s home state. A friend worked out a living arrangement in Viroqua with us and all was well. However, tensions began developing, and I discovered the exploitative nature of her true intentions. Upon confrontation, she decided my daughter and I were no longer welcome and we were dropped off with our things at a shelter in La Crosse. In a short time, I had gone from being an active member of a school board to being homeless for the first time, in an unfamiliar city with my 17-year-old daughter, all in an effort to escape the toxic environment that we had been enduring for too long.
This was the first time I had ever experienced a circumstance like this. The uncertainty of how long it would take to find a place of our own was stressful and frightening. Fortunately, the unfamiliar city that we found ourselves in had a supportive community that gave me and my daughter options. Although not ideal, the shelter helped us with the things we needed in order to get back on our feet. In addition to providing us a place to stay for the four months it took to find affordable housing that was also pet friendly, they provided meals and bus passes to us. The community support of La Crosse was also noticeably different from that in North Chicago. It was a completely different environment, which was refreshing and is something I have been grateful for since arriving here.
Despite these positive experiences, the days were exhausting. While finding a job came fairly easily (I was able to continue working as a bus aid for children with special needs with the same company as back in Illinois), the search for housing proved more difficult. We spent hours sitting at the public library, along with many others staying at the shelter, searching for a place to rent that would allow us to keep our beloved, elderly black lab (he was being fostered while we stayed at the shelter). This proved to be nearly impossible, so eventually we decided that we would just “forget” to mention him when meeting with landlords. After four months at the shelter, we were able to find a place of our own.
Again, our experience at the shelter was positive overall. However, we saw others struggle; namely, those suffering from poor mental health. While the shelter provides resources to help people get back on their feet, they could not do as much to help individuals who were battling mental illness on top of homelessness. This was not so much the fault of the shelter, but rather a reflection of our national meritocratic society. Even the disabled were expected to help themselves, instead of having someone to walk alongside them throughout the exhaustive processes of finding housing and employment. In the four months that we spent there, we witnessed several people leave, only to return a few weeks later. The stereotype of laziness seems to distract from addressing the role of mental illness (including substance abuse) in homelessness.
One of the most memorable experiences I had at the shelter was a short conversation with a man who was waiting outside for the doors to open for breakfast. I was outside having a cigarette while my daughter held the door open (the doors remained locked throughout the day, except for at meal times). He looked very hungry, so I offered to help him get in and stash a few food items away for the road. Although he declined my offer to help, I could sense how genuinely grateful he was to have held a conversation with someone who viewed him as a human being. The dehumanization of homelessness is undoubtedly another pervasive problem and negative byproduct of stereotypes and stigma.
Sometimes life throws a curveball that leaves you in an undesirable circumstance, and not everyone has a strong support system of friends and family to lean on in times of need. Perhaps more people would use social programs to help get back on track if it weren’t for the stereotypes and stigma surrounding them. Acts of kindness are also highly impactful, even simple notions like talking to someone with respect. Homelessness can happen to anyone at any point in life under the right circumstances. Showing compassion and empathy rather than judgement could help to improve the lives of many just like ours did after receiving the generosity and support from the shelter and the La Crosse community.