Updated: January 25, 2014 6:21AM
This will be 13-year-old Kimberly’s first Christmas as a homeless person.
She prays it will be her last, but there are no guarantees.
Before they became homeless in October, Kimberly and her family lived with her grandmother and aunt in her aunt’s apartment in Lawndale, where Christmas was always a time for cooking and baking and visits from cousins.
This Christmas will be spent with her three youngest brothers and sisters and their mother at the New Life Shelter, Howard and Paulina.
It’s a sanctuary for which Kimberly’s mother, Demesha Logan, is very grateful. But it’s not home, a truth that shows in Kimberly’s face as we discussed her new reality one evening last week.
I had arranged to meet Kimberly with the help of Wayne Richard, an organizer for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. Richard is doing a project for the coalition in which he asks children living in shelters to imagine what their home would be like if they had one and write a letter about it.
The Homes for Kids project was inspired by a book, “Hold Fast,” written by Blue Balliett, an award-winning young adult novelist from Hyde Park, in which the central character, a homeless girl, helps launch a very similar project.
In the book, homeless kids across the city write beautiful letters articulately expressing their dreams. In real life, well, the letters aren’t quite as publisher-ready.
But Kimberly’s letter caught my attention.
It starts off like many of the others, with Kimberly saying she wants a big house with a fireplace and a big Christmas tree, and she wants a computer in her room with a bed and an iPhone.
This part, though, is what really registered with me:
“I think it’s bad to be in a shelter,” she wrote, “because you can have all the family and friends at your house for any holiday and to be a happy family all together when kids can open up all their gifts that they want to open. And when you are in a shelter, you can’t have a great time with your family and friends. But you can’t forget that God is making you happy.”
That’s a deep thought for a young girl: to realize that what she is losing out on this holiday season isn’t the presents she won’t receive but the company of family and friends she won’t be able to share. How many of us truly understand that home is more than a roof over our heads and a place to keep our stuff?
This is the third shelter in which Kimberly and her family have stayed since being evicted from their apartment at 13th and Independence.
Logan has trouble explaining how they came to be homeless. She first mentions the death of her mother last July. Then her sister moved out, she said.
Still, Logan says she didn’t have any inkling of a problem until the sheriff was at the door, and they were being put out.
“It happened all at once like a nightmare,” Logan said. “If my sister had told me what was going on, we would have pulled together.”
The real story may be more messy than that, but it doesn’t matter.
What matters is that these four children are homeless, like thousands of other children across the city, many of them doubled up with family members until something happens that kicks the legs out from under their fragile support system.
This is the changing face of homelessness in Chicago — something I’ve been slow to recognize.
For every adult male you could find sleeping under a viaduct or down on Lower Wacker, there are probably at least two kids staying in a homeless shelter tonight.
No matter your attitude toward homeless adults, these are just children, not deserving of blame.
Kimberly says basketball is her main interest. Derrick Rose is her favorite player, but she’s rethinking that in light of his injury. She also likes playing with her Barbie doll and going to school, which requires waking at 5 a.m. every day to make the crosstown trek to the school at 79th and Ashland near the shelter in which they first stayed.
I ask Kimberly if she has finished her homework.
“Yes,” she says firmly, and fixes me with her best eye contact to leave no doubt.
Wayne Richard tells me some children he meets in these shelters have been homeless all their young lives and do not know what it would be like to have a home of their own. Some may not even realize they are homeless, not a bad thing in itself.
Kimberly realizes what is happening and knows what she has lost.