by Anne Ford
I used to be middle-class. I worked for Coca-Cola. I had a wife. When my stepdaughter went to school, my wife and I split up. I didn’t take it well, and I ended up in Chicago Reed [Mental Health Center] after a suicide attempt. I was evicted in my absence, so when I got out, I had no place to go.
I, for the most part, shunned the shelters. At best I found them uncomfortable; at worst I found that they weren’t safe. One shelter had 100 people on the floor on mats, and no employees. They picked certain homeless people to watch over others, which led to: how many cigarettes for a mattress? Another one, they just didn’t have the space. If I can reach to the next man’s bed without leaving my bed, that’s too close. If I wanted to be warm and uncomfortable, I could ride around on a bus.
Instead, I had a campsite at the Chicago-Evanston-Skokie border, on the North Branch of the Chicago River, under the Howard Street bridge. When it got ugly cold, I would go inside. But anything above 25 degrees, I would stay outside. I was there on and off for six years. The only people I would ever see was in the summertime—maybe kids, and some transplanted southerners that were fishing.
In the beginning, I knew a guy that owned a car wash, and he was able to put me to work. The amount of money I made there could keep me alive, but it could not better my situation, no matter how many hours I worked. So I lowered my expectations and just hoped to get through the next day. Very seldom did I think about being lonely. Whether or not somebody loves me isn’t going to have any effect on whether I eat tonight.
Under the bridge, the part of the land leading down to the river runs on an angle. So when you get far back in, even if somebody was looking directly at you, it would be difficult to see you. There was always tons and tons of garbage. I was somewhere in the middle of that. People just don’t gaze at garbage.
Finally somebody was able to convince me to fill out a disability application, so I’m in subsidized housing now. I’m clinically diagnosed as bipolar. It’s not the kind of thing you like to admit. Mental illness—I don’t think there’s a more stigmatizing label you can put on a person. It’s this warehouse for everything people don’t understand.
If I knew everything that I know now about mental illness and the legal system, I can’t say 100 percent for sure I would have made the same decision. If you have that “mentally ill” tag on you, you can be picked up off the street and locked up basically on the signature of a psychiatrist. If there’s any kind of conflict with someone, well, I’m the one with the prior criminal record, I’m the one with the history of mental illness.
I give one day a week to the Evanston animal shelter, working with domestic cats. We’re doing socialization with the cats that are feral or close to it. We’re trying to reintroduce the animal to human contact.