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Words on the Street

Poetry helps a homeless woman get back a little of what she lost.

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In a warm, dimly lit room sits a woman in an overstuffed chair. Though dressed in simple denim, she wears a scarf wrapped around her head like a sultan. Queen Hayes, who's 38, has taken years to acquire this sense of peace and dignity.

"The song 'Amazing Grace' means a lot to me," she says. "It was God's amazing grace that brought me here and kept me here and kept my children safe."

Born in Chicago, Hayes spent her early years in Mississippi. Her father was an airport janitor until he hurt his back and went on disability. Her mother, who cleaned and cooked for white families, was hard to please. "I was loved and supported by my dad," Hayes says. "He tried to substitute what I didn't get from my mom. My mom was very distant. I was my dad's puddin'."

When she was 14, Hayes's family returned to Chicago and settled in Englewood. She attended DuSable High School, where she earned honors and received a prize for her poetry. She sang in her church choir and planned to move downstate to attend Quincy College.

The fifth of eight children, Hayes says her mother played favorites. She was constantly berated while her older sister was praised. But seeking her mother's approval only opened her up to further ridicule. She began to look outside her family for a better life. "I needed a knight in shining armor to rescue me from my mom," Hayes says. "It got to the point where she had won my dad over. When I'd walk in the house and she'd make jokes, he'd laugh and that would hurt me. He was the only one I had in my corner." She says she now understands her father may have feared for his own security. "Sometimes when you're of no use to people, they have no time for you."

She met a young man and decided to forget about school. They were together for six years and married for another seven; they had twin boys. But he was demanding. She had to give up singing and writing poetry and anything else that might take her out of the home. "I stopped everything that I loved," Hayes says. They both worked hard to make ends meet, but outside the workplace she was dedicated to making her husband happy. "I had better be home at the average time I got home," she recalls. "I got off at 4:45, I'd better be there by 6 o'clock. Not 15 minutes early, because that meant some guy gave me a ride. Not 15 minutes late, because that means I stopped and was with somebody."

Hayes began to see her husband was a lot like her mother. He would call her stupid and curse at her in front of their children. If he had a bad day, he'd come home enraged. "He'd rant and rave, yell and scream at the top of his voice and call me all kinds of names. I'm sure the neighbors heard."

She felt isolated. She couldn't go to her parents. Her mom had befriended her husband and would ask, "What have you done now?" Her husband exploited her feelings of helplessness, taunting her when she threatened to leave: "You don't have anywhere to go--your own parents don't want you."

During a heated argument in April 1991, she says, her husband threatened to push her down the stairs of their apartment building. As she held onto the second-floor handrail, she realized "I lost all the feelings I had in my heart for him. It was at that point that I changed. I didn't ask to change; it just happened."

She took comfort in this line from the 23rd Psalm: "Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies."

On February 28, 1992, Hayes and her 11-year-old boys moved into their own apartment at 83rd and Ingleside. What should have been a moment of triumph was a preface to her darkest struggle. In the summer when Hayes returned from work, her two boys would go outside to play, and she would sit on the floor and cry. "I didn't know I was as sick as I was, because I had been in a sick situation for 13 years. Not to mention coming out of a dysfunctional family."

She eventually sought out a doctor, who put her on medication for depression. The pills helped, and she began to speak up for herself at work. The company had downsized twice, she says, and she was doing the work of three people. She requested a "substantial raise" and was told by the vice president that she'd get it. Then months passed, but no raise. Everyone at work knew she was taking medication and some of her coworkers began to tease her about it. One day she realized she'd reached the end of her rope. "The air was thick," she says. "It was so bad I could hardly handle it. The next day I got up...I fell back down. I fell on the floor and I never went back. It was too much pressure."

Shortly after losing her job, Hayes stopped taking the medication. She says her mind began to travel in circles. After losing her apartment, she and her sons moved into her younger sister's living room, staying there from May 1994 until January 1995. She took temp jobs and tried to piece her life back together. But her mother, she says, kept telling her sister to send them to a shelter. No one else in her family would help. When Hayes and her sons were asked to leave, she found a basement apartment and stayed there through the winter of 1996.

Hayes says she became physically ill and unable to work. She couldn't pay rent, and the landlord took her to court. On March 6, 1996, she became homeless. Her sons went to live with their father. "No one else would take them," she says.

Her parents allowed her to store some things in their basement, and she lived for a short time on the couch of a man who worked as a psychic. She remembers people paying him to "see into the other world." On August 12, 1996, she moved into an abandoned building, where she began to jot down her thoughts, finding strength in words. "It just came to me to do it," she says. "I had been there for so long with nobody. Hearing noises, frightened. When I left in December, all I could see was darkness."

Hayes stayed with an old girlfriend for a month, sleeping on the floor. She then lived with a cousin, and finally in February 1997 she went to a shelter. In August 1999 she found Marah's, part of Debra's Place, the shelter she currently lives in.

At Debra's Place, Hayes met Steffani Francis, director of the "Coming Home" project sponsored by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. The program aims to give voice to homeless men and women through writing and performance workshops. "Steffani has a way of teaching," Hayes says. "She pulls the words and ideas out of you. Now when something is bothering me I can write it down."

In her poem "Roses," Hayes sees the "smallest one is closed up, / Never having opened petals to the dew, / To the cool morning or to the sun's bright rays....The second rose is opened and damaged. / Some of its outside petals are worn. / One is even wilting, / a rough life at such an early age."

Steffani Francis says discovering one's creativity "makes us realize what's beautiful about us. People living in shelters deal every day with all the things that are ugly." One goal of the program is to break down stereotypes about homeless people, she says, making it "impossible to walk by someone in the street and not look them in the eye or wonder what's in their heart." Work from the program has been collected in two books, which are available from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (for more information, call 312-435-4548).

Hayes says she hopes her words will help others as much as they've helped her. "What I would really like to do is catch teenagers before they make a drastic turn that changes their lives," she says. "The drugs, alcohol, becoming a mother. If I can say something that will spark them to change their minds about sleeping with that boy, about taking a hit off that pipe, then my life is worth living."

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