Housing provides security, solace

Mamie Medrano, 44 and a recovering alcoholic, has struggled to find safe, affordable housing.

Living in shelters and then with relatives, she drifted in and out of homelessness for years, taking her young daughter with her.

Their lives changed for the better in November 2001, when the pair moved into The Holland Apartments in Roseland on the city's far South Side.

The building is owned, managed and operated by Mercy Housing Lakefront, a non-profit that helps provide housing, job training and other services to previously homeless residents.

The organization, which serves some 2,000 people in 15 buildings throughout Chicago, is funded in part by the Corporation for Supportive Housing. Both are supported by Chicago Tribune Holiday Giving, a campaign of Chicago Tribune Charities, a McCormick Tribune Foundation fund.

Medrano said her spacious, two-bedroom apartment brings her the type of peace one can only feel in the knowledge one has a safe, clean place to live. It's allowed her to focus on her other problems, to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and work each day to fight her addiction.

'I can get sober,' she said. 'But to stay sober, that takes a lot of work for me.'

It's been hard to stay clean, and her resolve has been tested many times.

'I've been through so much,' she said. 'I grew up real fast.'

Medrano started sipping alcohol in her bedroom when she was 11. Now, when she's tempted to drink, she knows how to fight the urge.

Standing inside her apartment, her brow damp with sweat from cooking dinner, she's finally on firm ground.

'I thank God,' she said. 'I'm stable now.'

Her daughter, 9-year-old Mandi Walker, a playful girl who greets visitors with a hug, is thriving in the apartment, saying she's happy to have her own bedroom.

'It feels great,' she said, playing cards in the living room next to a brightly lit Christmas tree.

Residents living in other Mercy-run buildings echo the same pride.

It's been two years since Freeman Rufus moved into Wentworth Commons, also in Roseland.

He needed a place to stay after asthma forced him to quit his job as a meat cutter.

Rufus, who punctuates nearly every sentence with a hearty laugh, lived for a time in a shelter and spent a couple of nights in the lobby of a police station, anything to get out of the cold.

Wentworth Commons has not only provided him with shelter, but also has given him an added sense of purpose. Rufus, 56, spends much of his time volunteering, participating in voter registrations drives, neighborhood cleanups and other programs.

'I never imagined I'd be doing all of this,' he said, thumbing through a wall calendar that's nearly full. 'It's opened up the door to so many things.'

Rufus revels in the comforts of his small apartment. But like many residents here, he looks forward to when he can move and make room for the next tenant. Until then, he'll relish every day here.

'This is my family,' he said of the other residents.

Each tenant in Mercy's buildings has a case manager and property manager to help them take responsibility for paying rent, among other goals. In many cases, tenants are employed on site, some as custodians and desk clerks.

Part of Mercy's goal is for the housing units to blend into - and in some cases improve - the quality of the surrounding area.

Residents are invited to use the buildings' meeting spaces and computers. Tenants are encouraged to take ownership of the communities in which they live, which is why there is such a push to volunteer.

Organizations like Mercy Housing Lakefront couldn't operate without funding from other groups, such as the Corporation for Supportive Housing or CSH.

CSH, a national organization with an office in Chicago, doesn't build homes. Instead, it helps other groups formulate plans to build new housing units or convert other buildings into permanent homes by providing both money and guidance.

'Our role is to help organizations create this type of housing,' said Katrina Van Valkenburgh, the Corporation's associate director.

Peggy Haywood, 42, wanted to give her daughter and grandson a safe place to live. She and her family moved into Wentworth Commons about five months ago.

Haywood used to work for an attorney in a law firm. But when he left, she was out of a job. She now works as a clerk for another of Mercy's housing units.

'I'm very pleased with what I have,' she said of her apartment. 'It's quiet, secure. All of the apartments are well-built. It's my own little sanctuary.'

source: By Jo Napolitano
Chicago Tribune

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