Her name was Jose, although she wanted to be called “Sweets.” So I called her Sweets. Sweets was a Puerto Rican transgender woman living in the streets of Chicago.
She visited the church soup kitchen every Wednesday for a warm meal and donated clothes. I was always there, because I coordinated the volunteers of the soup kitchen. “Bev Bev!” she’d yell, as she walked into the Fellowship Hall. “Hey Sweety Poo,” I’d reply. She was sweet. She was also outgoing, tenderhearted, and sharp. “How was your week?” I asked her - which we both understood really meant, “Are you ok?”
When Sweets’ was 16, her grandmother kicked her out after she dropped out of high school. After floating from job to job, she became a sex worker. She didn't talk much about her work, in part, because she never knew who was in earshot. Rudimentary Q&A was our way of subtle communication regarding her well-being. When she'd had a bad week, she would deflect.
On this day, she waved a rainbow flag in the air and smiled her beautiful smile. “I was on a float in the Pride parade!” She was proud of herself and I was proud of her. “Good for you, Poo,” I said. “How else was your week?” I asked her - which we both understood really meant, “Are you ok?”
“It was fine, girlfriend, damn! Anyway, what’s for dinner?” she deflects.
“Chicken and rice.”
Every Wednesday, approximately 60 homeless people would join our table for dinner. We called them our guests in hopes they’d feel welcomed. Folks from the church and local organizations would volunteer to help out. It was a massive undertaking; preparation involved weekly food procurement, cooking, table setting, and cleanup. People donated clothing and toiletries for our guests to grab if necessary.
For me, it was like heaven. I met beautiful souls. A guy with a PhD in physics who loved the bottle a bit too much, a convicted felon desperate for a second chance, a schizophrenic mother of two kids, and a veteran who hated enclosed spaces.
We never knew what would happen from week to week. Sometimes there were arguments (one guest claimed another stole his CTA pass), and other times there were difficult discussions (“why would your Jesus let me be homeless? I don’t think I like him”).
“I hate rice but I’ll eat it,” Sweets said. Sweets always had an issue with something we cooked. “Thank you, ma’am,” I replied, taking her flag and waving it in front of her. “Local celebrities can’t be hungry.”
Three Wednesdays later, I hadn’t seen Sweets. The Wednesday after that, I still hadn’t seen Sweets. One of the other guests mentioned they’d seen her near Boystown a few weeks prior, but not since.
The year was 2008. I never saw Sweets again.
I sat looking out of my office window at the active crime scene. It had only been a month since I accepted the community organizing and development position at the health clinic within Altgeld Gardens. About two years after Sweets disappeared, I exited the professional social justice field for the refuge of human resources. Burnout is real. But with all things deeply embedded in my soul, I couldn’t stay away. Recently divorced, I decided it was as good a time as any to return.
There is one way in and one way out of Altgeld Gardens. Located on the far south side of Chicago, the residents exist in an orchestrated bubble. Altgeld Gardens was one of the first public housing developments in the US. Constructed after World War II, its purpose was to exclusively offer housing to African-Americans returning from combat. The sprawling, row house layout is distinctly different from city center, high-rise developments such as Cabrini-Green. Altgeld Gardens, once surrounded by bustling steel mills, is now surrounded by a polluted river and unregulated landfills, racially segregated from the rest of the city and sitting on toxic land.
Altgeld is located in a food desert; the last Red Line stop is over 30 city streets north and just one bus travels through the development. If you don’t have a vehicle, your only food choice is a rundown store that carries junk food and moldy produce. Relatedly, if you don’t have a vehicle, your employment options are limited. Intricate social and structural barriers prevent upward mobility. You can’t pray, learn, dress, or talk your way out of this; the economic disparities are systemic.
The people of Altgeld Gardens are as real as they come. They don’t take any crap. They are proud of what their community used to be, and want revitalization. They fight for opportunities. They’ve experienced significant violence and desire to live peacefully. But peace is hard won.
Alex Spikes, a 17-year-old kid, was dead, along with three others. The shootout took place at a small convenience store near the entrance of Altgeld Gardens. And even though it occurred after I’d gone home for the evening, law enforcement was still there processing the scene the following morning. The crime scene was eerily still. No residents were being interviewed. No one was talking.
I’d scheduled a community meeting in our building for the next day and invited residents and local politicians. Somehow I knew attendance would be light.
So there I sat, silently, surrounded by crime scene tape. The bodies had been removed but the yellow tape remained. And I stared at it; or rather it stared at me.
When I was a child, my father used to fix broken televisions. On any given day, television set parts could be strewn across the basement floor. My dad would bring a TV in the house, press a few buttons, and then immediately begin to disassemble it. He explained that you can't fix something just by poking around the outside; you have to take it apart, examine, correct the issue, and rebuild.
And so it is with us.
Not everyone can be on the frontlines; most of us lead lives that disallow daily on-the-ground work, unless it is our profession. That fact alone can lead to an overwhelming sense of guilt and helplessness. How do I fight for justice if I can’t be physically present? What can I do to help those suffering? Discussing the issues is one way. But another way to engage in this obscure, twisted struggle is to steadily pursue justice for victims, interrupt the violence within marginalized communities, and speak out on behalf of those who have no platform.
I challenge us all to explore this way. Extend energy into your families and communities to assess uncomfortable needs. Study ideas, have difficult conversations, engage with others on social media, and reach across aisles. Self-desegregate. Reject the allure of homogeneity and interact with people who are nothing like you. Be a leader. Be a listener. Be involved. Disassemble whatever is broken and rebuild.
I’m not new to this work of justice. I understand the difficulties and emotional hardships. But together, in our communities and in our world, we can win this fight.