By Yadira Sanchez Olson
Otelia Schwartz was in a bad situation, the kind no mother ever wishes for her children.
They were homeless for 10 years.
Schwartz’s daughter was 10 years old and her son was 12. They slept under viaducts and in homeless camps. When they were lucky, they spent time in a one-room motel in DuPage County, where Schwartz said police were called nearly every day for gang and drug activity.
“I couldn’t explain to my daughter why she wasn’t allowed to go out of the room to play,” Schwartz said.
But those days are over for the Schwartz family.
After a decade of living on the streets, during which Schwartz said she went through a mental breakdown and spent time in a psychiatric ward, the family is now in a better place.
Schwartz’ son is a computer technician at Micro Center in Chicago and her daughter is a junior at Southern Illinois University. Now living in Waukegan, Schwartz said she’s proud of her children for not letting that difficult time in their lives deter them from moving on and getting ahead.
Schwartz also is moving forward. She’s a member of the Independence Center in Waukegan and volunteers her time at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. And now, she’s making it her mission to help other displaced families in Lake County.
She’s organized the first Homeless Education Awareness Festival, scheduled for Friday night (May 23) at Waukegan’s Clearview Elementary School. The effort will help homeless students who attend the school.
“In Lake County there were 964 students that were identified as homeless last (school) year,” Schwartz said. “In Waukegan there were 332.”
The festival will entertain children with games and a visit from the Waukegan Township’s Art Mobile. There will also be two children’s bikes raffled and a cake walk with baked goods donated by the Most Blessed Trinity Parish.
For adults, organizations such as the Community Action Partnership of Lake County and state legislators will be passing out literature and letting families know help is available if their family is in need.
“I want people to understand that homeless is not the bag lady or the bum, it’s families with children; it’s veterans,” Schwartz said.
She added that people who are homeless are often vulnerable to overwhelming injustices because some don’t know of programs that can help them.
“You just don’t know who can help,” Schwartz said. “It’s hard to trust or know what questions you should be asking.”
Schwartz said she hopes the festival raises money and sheds some light on the issue.
The homeless festival runs from 6 to 8 p.m. May 23 at Clearview Elementary School, 1700 Delaware Road, Waukegan.
Otelia Schwartz, who was homeless for 10 years, has organized the first Homeless Education Awareness Festival, scheduled for Friday night at Waukegan’s Clearview Elementary School.