Dear Chicago: We need a place to live

A grandmother raising her grandchildren searches for affordable housing.

January 17, 2011


It’s estimated that over forty-thousand households in Chicago are headed by grandparents who have taken responsibility for raising their grandchildren. 61-year-old Joyce Jackson is part of that legion. The mother of four has twelve grandchildren, four of whom she’s raised herself: 21-year-old Jamie, 19-year-old Jamal, 18-year-old Mario and 16-year-old Keosha.

Securing affordable housing is difficult for many Chicago residents but it is often more so for families headed by grandparents. Many of them are retired or are on a fixed income. Senior housing designed for low-income adults is rarely suitable for families with children.
 
In 2009 Jackson found an apartment in Coppin House, a 54-unit building just west of Washington Park, developed jointly between a variety of non-profit and government entities, including the City of Chicago. Gladys Jordan, Director of Interfaith Housing Development Corporation, says the city’s contribution to the project included selling the land on which Coppin House sits to the developer for a single dollar. It also issued $8.3 million in tax-exempt bonds and $679,000 in 4% low-income housing tax credits.
 
The building was designed specifically for families headed by grandparents or other adult relatives, and for young adults phasing out of the foster care system. Coppin House is one of only a few buildings in the city designed with this purpose in mind, so demand for units far outstrips supply. According to Gladys Jordan, every time they open the waiting list for spots at Coppin House, “Literally, thousands of families apply.”
 
Dear Chicago,
I’ve had my granddaughter Jamie since she was born. I was 40 when she was born, and it changed my life drastically. Her mother was my youngest child and she had went away to school and I had just become an empty nester, so I was thinking this was the time I was getting ready to live, you know, do some things for myself and live life for me. But I loved Jamie, so I adjusted to that. But then it went from one grandchild to three and then to four.
 
Jamie’s mother, my daughter Daphne, suffered with depression. She moved out and then she had the two boys, Mario and Jamal, and the next girl, Keosha. And she didn’t tell me she couldn’t take care of her children; she just showed me. It had gotten to the point where the children were being left home alone. I knew they were being neglected. The two boys started calling me, saying, “Grandma, we don’t have anything to eat.” I said, well, I may as well have the children if I’m going to be running back and forth trying to make sure they have what they need to wear, trying to make sure everything’s going right in school for them. And down through the years Daphne never one time asked me if she could have her children, you know, “Mama, I’m ready to take care of my children.”
 
I didn’t think it would be permanent. I thought she would get better, but she didn’t.
 
It was very hard. People told me I should just let them go into the [foster care] system and then they’ll give them back to you, but I loved my grandchildren and I didn’t want to see them out of my home for even one day.
 
We had a real nice house in the suburb of South Holland, Illinois--a three-bedroom house with three bathrooms and a full, finished basement. There was plenty of room for us. But they were out there in the suburbs and I was working in the city, and I was just so upset with them coming home in the house alone. So, I decided to resign from my job and do home daycare professionally so I could be home with them.
 
At first it went really well. We were paying the bills and, as a matter of fac,t I was making more money doing day care than I was working at my old job. But it got to the point where a lot of people started getting laid off from their jobs and people didn’t have the money for childcare. I couldn’t continue to pay the house note and the utilities, so I lost the house to foreclosure.
 
We moved into the city with my sister. But it was really tight. She was already living in a five-bedroom apartment with her friend and my granddaughter, Keosha. It was just too many people in one house. We weren’t getting along, and the boys wound up having to sleep on an enclosed back porch that wasn’t heated. We were really trying to find someplace else to go but I still didn’t have the income to find a place. We got to the point where we really felt like we were going to end up homeless.
 
Then my daughter-in-law brought me a form from the Chicago Department of Aging. They asked me what I needed, and I checked housing. So eventually about six months later they did call me and told me about Coppin House. My heart was glad and I was like, oh God, I want one of those apartments! But you still needed money to move in. It wasn’t free: I also needed $980 for the security deposit.
 
Then the Lord sent Grand Families [Program of Chicago] in our life! The Department of Aging hooked me up with Grand Families. I was over to the office one day and the director asked me to come in her office and so I came in and she said, “We’re going to give you the money to get the apartment.”
 
I started crying and praising God. We had already gone and looked at the apartments and they were just heaven for us. It was just like a weight lifted off of my heart. And I said God this is it, you have done it, now we have a place of our own again.
 
Now we have been here almost two years and I love being here and it’s working out for me well. The only problem I have with it--and I still thank God because he has provided for me for these two years--but it is hard for me to pay the rent. Usually every month I’m relying on my other three grown children to help me pay the rent, but it’s getting hard for them, too, because they each have families.
 
My appeal would be to build more of this kind of housing that is affordable for grandparents. There are so many grandparents that are going through the struggle and need decent housing. And I’m not the only grandparent in here that’s really struggling to pay the rent. I just met a grandmother that just got seven grandchildren. Seven! And last time I talked to her she was trying to find housing because she was getting ready to be evicted.
 
I’m grateful for what the city did. Mayor Daley came to the grand opening of Coppin House. He came in and cut the ribbon and said he was glad we were so happy for this housing and he was going to put it on the agenda for more. And I’m kind of sad he’s leaving. Really, I am, because I’m hoping the next person coming in has that same mind.

Dear Chicago is a project of WBEZ’s Partnership Program. Joyce Jackson was nominated for the series by Community Media Workshop.