Shelter keeps family together as mother searches for work

Alesa Thurman was seven months pregnant with her fourth child when she was evicted from her apartment on the far South Side of Chicago in January 2008. 

Her unemployment insurance wasn’t enough to pay the rent after she got laid off from a job with the company that provided mailroom services at the Aon Center, a skyscraper in the Chicago Loop, and after a few months the landlord put her out. 

“I lived in that apartment three years,” said Thurman, 29. “I had worked at that job two years.” 

On the move 

After the eviction, she moved in with a friend until the baby, Aleia, came. The move meant transferring her two oldest children, Alana, now 11, and Alexis, now 8, from one school to another. Her third child, Alanzo, 5, started kindergarten last fall. 

After a few months, the family was on the move again, to the North Side of Chicago, where they traveled back and forth between Thurman’s sister and her family and Thurman’s brother. The two oldest girls ended up in a third school in less than a year. 

Over the past two years she has found two more jobs. One she left when she found it impossible to care for her children — and feel safe — working a 3 p.m. to midnight shift, the other she was laid off from in August 2009. 

Neither job allowed her to build enough savings to rent another apartment. 

“I’ve just been doing the best I can do,” said Thurman, who is still looking for work and still getting unemployment.  

By early 2010, she was looking for a shelter that would take her and her children, because camping out with relatives was wearing thin on all of them. 

“It’s a good thing to be with family, but sometimes you have to go out of your comfort zone,” Thurman explained. 

She had contacted Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago last spring, she said, but they had no openings. But in June, Catholic Charities called Thurman and offered her a spot at Madonna House, a new family shelter on the North Side. 

“June 14, I got the call,” said Thurman. She was ready to move in the next day. 

“My sister, she has a three-bedroom apartment,” she said. “When we were there, there were two adults and seven kids living there.” 

Safe environment 

Madonna House, which has space for 14 families, offers each family a room, three meals and two snacks a day. Residents meet with caseworkers who help them make plans to move forward, and counseling is available. While the bedrooms are basic, the families also have use of common areas, and the mothers can help cook — at the same time learning how to make healthy, economical meals — and they do the cleanup. 

“When we first walked in, my kids said, ‘We have beds! We don’t have to sleep in sleeping bags,” she said. “It’s a warm, comfortable, safe environment.” 

Thurman found the counseling very helpful. As a teen, she was a ward of the state who already had a child by the time she aged out of the system. Her four children all have different fathers, none of whom are capable of contributing much to the family financially. She feels the pressure of having to support the whole family on her own. 

“I learned that it’s OK to take a moment, to take a break and keep myself focused,” she said. “I learned that you don’t need to meet negative people to be moving in a negative direction. I just let things pile up. I thought, ‘God, I don’t know how much more I can take.’” 

She found her last apartment through a Catholic Charities transitional housing program, and was expecting to move into a new two-bedroom apartment through the same program shortly after being interviewed. The new apartment is back on the South Side, but her children — now three of them in school — will not transfer until the summer. 

She is continuing to look for work, hoping that as the economy picks up, someone will need her office skills. She also wants to go back to school for an associate’s degree at least, to set a positive example for her children. 

“You have to practice what you preach,” she said. 

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.

Homeless Families (sidebar)

5.7 - Average number of months a family stays in the shelter system before moving to permanent housing 

23%- Percentage of homeless population composed of families with children. 

39% - Percentage of homeless population composed of children younger than 18. 

Source: National Coalition for the Homeless

More profiles from the In Focus

Chimere Silvia (Providence, R.I.): Mother of six getting life on track after years of drug addiction

Amanda Mellish (Pittsburgh, PA.): Catholic program helps young woman break from former life

Christine Rodgriguez (Eugene, Ore.): Hard times help mother appreciate what she has in life

Mark Elias (Miami): Out-of-work laborer finds safe harbor at Catholic shelter