Of No Fixed Address: Terrorized Around the Clock

03/28/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I could tell you things that would make your hair stand on end. I could tell you stories that are--they're not even fit to print. They're so horrendous. They're so dreadful. They're so awful. They're so terrifying and terroristic that you couldn't even print things like this. That's how bad it is.

--Elizabeth, panhandling outside a department store in the Loop

This is the eighth in a series of excerpts from my oral history, Of No Fixed Address: A Collection of Voices from the Streets of Chicago. Read more about the project here.


It is a sunny Saturday morning in early February. Barbara is on her way to breakfast at a North Side church. We strike up a conversation on the sidewalk outside the church. I tell her a little bit about my project, and I explain that it's my first time at this particular church.

She is overwhelmingly hospitable. "Come with me, honey," she says, and leads me into the church cafeteria. She introduces me to one of the volunteer coordinators, pours me a cup of coffee, and shows me to a table. "Here honey. Sit down."

Barbara is a second-generation Italian American. She has a strained, raspy voice, and she speaks with great zeal.

They automatically assume that homelessness, it's like people that get high, don't wanna work, and things like that. And a lot of it is true, because a lot of people make a career out of homelessness. And I don't like that anymore than the next person does. Loitering, throwing their bottles all over, and things like that. But a lot of people out here do have real stories. They've either been bogusly evicted or lost their jobs and couldn't get another job and therefore couldn't meet another payment.

I mean, I've lived in the Gold Coast. I worked in film industry. I worked for theatres. And I have very wealthy friends. I lived in some of the best apartments ever--penthouses!--and partied with who's who. And I find myself twice, not once, evicted. Once from Barry Avenue because I was in the hospital after being terrorized by people, which I don't know at this point who they are, but they were police officers. And from the hospital I had my attorney call 'em to see if I could pay the rent. When I got out, however, they wouldn't accept the rent because I think there was a rent increase.

Now I was bogusly evicted from Briar Place. Same thing. Terrorized around the clock. And the only people that could do that--bug your apartment and steal your recipes and everything else--are the police. Or whoever has access to the building. These are buildings that are all owned under Thomas Hatcher and Company. And they're slum lords. That Briar Place building hasn't had a coat of paint on it since twenty years ago. And I used to live on Grace Street, where they did the same thing to me. Every neighborhood. They did it to my whole family. Not just me. And these are police officers.

So I gave them an ultimatum. I was being billed six hundred and twenty dollars a month. They wanted to charge me four hundred dollars for electricity. I was living by one bulb. My eyes got impaired because I only had one light bulb.

They had me hooked up to the area code nine-six-zero, which is either California or San Francisco. So they had the whole apartment building hooked up to my billing on ComEd. The knobs on the sink were missing. There were crack holes in the bathroom. They had my apartment bugged. It was just horrible.

So I went to the office, and I told them I would not pay the rent unless they made a decent living condition. And what they did was, they stole all my furniture under Penske truck. They used to be parked out there. I know that's gotta be some kind of trucking scandal.

Nobody knows for sure how many homeless people suffer from mental illness. This is not to suggest that the relationship between homelessness and mental illness has gone overlooked. It hasn't. (Google "homeless, mental illness" and you'll be inundated with facts and figures, many of which are illuminating.) But conflicting definitions of "homelessness," varying methods of enumeration, and inconsistent demographic profiles diminish the overall compatibility of these statistics. Attempting to derive a comprehensive conclusion about the relationship between homelessness and mental illness is ultimately a matter of guesswork.

It is also worth noting that the relationship between mental illness and homelessness is not necessarily unidirectional. Mental illness can lead to homelessness, yes. But the stress of losing one's home, sleeping on a park bench, and surviving from nickel to nickel could just as easily exacerbate a predisposition to mental illness. In many cases, we see some combination of the two--a vicious, self-perpetuating downward spiral that swiftly carries one to a life in the lowest of echelons.

They wanted to take complete possession of my identity. They wanted to own my life. They terrorized my whole family. They killed my brother, my father. I know who the people are, I'm just not gonna say any names. They'll go down.

You know how many hits they've taken on my life? All staged by the cops. Cook County. The warden that ran Cook County Jail stole my identity and actually has this lady impersonating my mother, collecting all my family's Social Security benefits after they killed them. All protected by the police... the crooked slime of Cook County. To Serve and Protect is a joke. They don't protect the innocent. They protect the crooks because the crooks pay them off.

I ask Barbara how, in the face of these hardships, she finds the courage to carry on.

Oh honey, I work for God around the clock. I'm involved with every church that you could think of. Every non-profit organization from the Greater Chicago Food Depository to St. Francis to St. Joseph's to St. Paul's. I volunteer all the time.

Do you stay in a shelter?

No, honey. I don't want nothin' to do with them either. They're all owned by them. Shelters. First they drive you from penthouses. Then they try to get you into shelters. And from there they tell you, "You got a problem, you need to go see a psychiatrist." Or, "You need to go to AA." There's paddy wagons parked all day recording every conversation that goes on in there, and they use it for their advantage. I've gone through that too, thank you.

Even on the computer. They tamper with the computer. Where your e-mail address goes. They bug everything. Anything electrical could be tampered with. They eavesdropped on my conversations on North Halsted Street. That's where it started thirty years ago.

I don't say nothing unless it's the truth. And anyone that knows me knows I don't utter a word of lie. I could be as aggressive as them. They took enough hits on me. The last one was staged at St. Joseph's Church. Cuban Liquid Coffee. Have you ever heard of that? It doesn't exist. The police were completely aware of it. I took it, I drank some of it. And the thing could've killed any of those priests, because when I got to Barry Avenue, my apartment at that time, it spilled. And it was hardened plastic. They couldn't even get it off the floor.