Homelessness To Hope

"Chloe" plays with a friend at CCO's original shelter.

“Chloe” age 5, plays with a friend at CCO’s family shelter over 20 years ago.

Chloe is a real person. She’s lived through the fears and trials of being a homeless child in America and I am blessed to be a part of her story.

To describe my earlier memories of Chloe I would have to go back to our old emergency shelter at 4707 N. Malden. It was Cornerstone Community Outreach’s pioneer days. At night our community dining room served as a shelter for single women and women with children. People were everywhere. As those in need began coming to us we felt sure that the Lord wanted us to step up and open our home. Our concept was simple; take anyone who needed shelter. This ensured one thing; we would have plenty to do for years to come.

This is where I found Chloe, sweet and lively at the age of five. In my memory I can still see her leaping and bouncing through the dining room, springing from thin mat to thin mat, giggling.

Chloe lived at the shelter with her mother, Margery. She had no siblings and her father was unknown. Chloe’s mother had a tragic past that I was to find out about years later. Being from Uganda originally, Margery’s family was scattered when her father was executed by Idi Amin’s military regime. Margery was forced to flee to safety. She came to America and brought her well-earned paranoia with her. Even after giving birth to Chloe she refused to be known by immigration or any government agency, friends or relatives. She lived from hand to mouth without a plan for the future. She would often lash out in anger only to be shockingly generous and approachable the next moment. She was a puzzling woman, a woman who suffered from mental illness. Her condition caused Chloe much suffering, also.

I can’t remember exactly when we met but we were always together. I made pitiful attempts at braiding her neglected hair. And she loved raking a comb through my tangled mane. She was naturally affectionate to everyone around her. So many people who worked and lived in the shelter loved her. She was very bright and inquisitive and many of us had to go to extraordinary measures to get her past her mother and out the door to school. Chloe leaving the building was one of the ways Margery’s mental illness sprang up. She simply wanted to keep Chloe as isolated as she had become. I wish I could say that Chloe’s mother began listening to concerned staff around her and get the help she needed but she refused and Chloe’s homelessness dragged on for much too long.

Eventually, a state child protection agency got involved and Margery refused even their help. Sadly, Chloe was taken into group homes and foster care. Through these years we stayed in touch and there were more struggles in store for Chloe but she always amazed me with her balance and determination.

As she got older we would often visit each other from across the city. On these visits Chloe would occasionally ask if I’d seen her mother. Sometimes I had seen her in the neighborhood with her caravan of shopping carts bloated with bags. Still refusing help. Still a mystery in so many ways. I remember one time I found her sitting on a milk crate beside several stuffed carts in front of a local theater. Margery pulled out another crate and we sat and chatted for a while. I offered her help; she politely declined. However, before I left she insisted that I take three nice pairs of shoes she had found in the dumpster home with me. Margery’s precarious life on the street filled Chloe with fears and concerns. But she was powerless to make her change. We all were.

Chloe enrolled in a college preparatory school on the cities west side. With her lively mind and gift for creative writing she proved that when she applied herself she could overachieve at school. She got a job at the Chicago Field Museum and was part of a drama and dance production about the dinosaur, Sue.

Her graduation day is one I will never forget. As I sat in the crowd of well wishers, I felt that I could see Chloe’s life over the years and simply marveled at this young woman walking with a broad smile and determined poise. I felt suck deep pride and love for her.

Now we see each other daily. And occasionally I am reminded of the little girl who lived in a shelter for much, much too long with her mentally ill mother, the only relative she had. Now she’s a young woman of 23, putting one food in front of the other accomplishing a life lived. I am so thankful the Lord brought Chloe into my life. I consider myself privileged to know her and have a role in her exciting, and sometimes painful life.

Today, Chloe attends one of the City Colleges of Chicago. She has aspiration of being a flight attendant or airline employee. She wants to see the world.

(Names have been changed to protect privacy.)

- Beth Nicholls

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