Chicago Tribune

Remembering those who never had a place in society

December 20, 2010

Dawn Turner Trice

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless holds memorial service for people who died homeless.

Wayne Richard is a man of sizable heft with a heavy bass voice, and when he sits down on a streamlined black sofa in an office at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, the cushions sigh a bit.

You notice this only if you know ahead of time that when Richard talks about his life as a homeless teenager and adult, he frames his stories in terms of his relationship with sofas.

“One of my fondest memories was sleeping on the living room sofa in my grandma’s house,” said Richard, 46, a community organizer for the coalition. “It was an oversized, beige, flowered-print sofa where I’d meet up with my imaginary siblings.

“To me, a sofa represents this unity, solidarity and love. I realized that when I was young and jumping around from place to place. I would stay for a while on people’s sofas. When they didn’t fit right, it was a sign I didn’t belong.”

When I met Richard, he was preparing for a memorial service that the coalition, along with the Ignatian Spirituality Project, will host on Tuesday for people who died homeless. The service and candle-lighting ceremony will begin at 6 p.m. at Old St. Patrick’s Church, 700 W. Adams St.

Richard said he works with homeless people who feel to some degree invisible or less than human.

“I know because my own homeless experience made me feel like something that was produced and managed rather than a human being,” Richard said. “I know what it feels like to have to figure out where you belong in the human experience, to be alive but feel dead inside.”

Richard’s mother died when he was about 3 months old. He never knew his father even though his parents were married when he was born. His grandmother, who lived in the Park Manor neighborhood, reared him until she died when he was 13.

At first, Richard moved in with his grandfather, who lived around the block. But that lasted only three days, Richard said, because he and his grandfather’s new wife didn’t have much of a relationship. The grandfather made arrangements for Richard to live with a family friend.

“My grandfather was the main male figure in my life, and I looked up to him,” Richard said. “We didn’t get along from that point until the time he passed when I was about 22 years old. By then I was a young scruff, running up and down the streets.”

Richard said he stayed with the family friend for only a couple of years before moving in with a classmate who had what was then called a “Kool-Aid house.”

“On the Kool-Aid commercials, there was always a house where every kid in the neighborhood was welcome,” Richard said. “It was a safe house, and being there meant you were part of that extended family. I stayed until I was 18.”

While there, he divided his time between a twin bed and a low-slung sofa in the basement.

In the years following, his life was defined by transience. He lived with girlfriends or on his own, while moving in and out of dead-end jobs. He got married and then divorced after a year, and says he was nursing a drug habit. He bunked in homeless shelters, on the front stoops of churches and on park benches.

“Sometimes, I slept in my shoes so the rats wouldn’t get in them,” he said.

In the summer of 1999, Richard was living in a halfway house on the West Side and considering suicide when a priest from the Ignatian Spirituality Project visited. The project is a Jesuit ministry that offers spiritual retreats for homeless people. The priest invited the men at the halfway house to attend a retreat.

“I went, and it changed me in a way that never made me the same,” said Richard. “It opened me up and inserted me back into humanity and a world I could understand and be a part of.”

He said that when he returned to the halfway house, it was like coming out of exile. In early 2000, his ex-wife allowed him to move back in with her until he found gainful employment. He began to piece together his life, eventually landing a job with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

Richard said he understands that not everyone is as fortunate. Too many people have perished on the streets.

“The purpose of the memorial is to honor them,” said Richard, who now lives in the Woodlawn neighborhood. “My experiences had left me unable to participate in life and with other people. That was the spiritual homelessness. You’re homeless when you don’t have a home, but you’re homeless really when you don’t have a place. Nobody deserves that.”