“A Place Where I Have Community”

  Mable, at right, with neighbor Donna. Courtesy of Housing Opportunities and Maintenance for the Elderly (H.O.M.E.), Chicago, IL

Mable, at right, with neighbor Donna. Courtesy of Housing Opportunities and Maintenance for the Elderly (H.O.M.E.), Chicago, IL

I write my first reflection to you, friends of H.O.M.E., the morning after Ayanna Pressley won her primary, poised to become the first Black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress. Two weeks ago, Ida B. Wells Drive replaced Congress Parkway, said to be the first major street named for a Black woman in Chicago. Aretha Franklin was eulogized by a former President at her star-studded funeral.

But if you are a woman of color, and elderly to boot, achieving a decent quality of life remains a challenge. You are more likely to live alone, in poverty, and burdened by housing and health care costs. According to the National Organization for Women, “More than 1 in 4 older African American women (27%), about 1 in 5 older Hispanic women (22%) and about 1 in 8 Asian American women (12%) in the United States is poor, compared with only 1 in 20 older white men (5%).”

To be a Black woman in America today is to live on the edge of hypervisibility and invisibility, as poet Claudia Rankine wrote in Citizen. If she is poor and elderly, she is hidden. But not to us at H.O.M.E.

What makes H.O.M.E. special for me is that it simultaneously upholds the value of independence and association. Over 80 percent of the older adults served by H.O.M.E. are Black women. Most live on the South and West Sides of Chicago in neighborhoods struggling with the effects of racial discrimination, equity stripping, and neglect.

As a supporter of H.O.M.E., you know that H.O.M.E. puts the accent on community. For over 35 years, Housing Opportunities & Maintenance for the Elderly has been rooted in the faith-based principle that each human has intrinsic worth and isolation is antithetical to our very being. The founders, Lilo and Michel Salmon, purposely made “H.O.M.E.” – note the warmth of “home” rather than “housing” – the vehicle of uplift for Chicago’s low-income elderly. They believed that older people have gifts to share as well as “needs” to fill.

That notion of community and independence at H.O.M.E. is echoed by a resident of the Nathalie Salmon House, Mable, who grew up on the South Side in crowded conditions and worked for many years as a teacher’s aide. She has described how she likes not only having her “own private room and mailbox key” but also making breakfast in “a place where I have community.”

As a community organizer who has worked for housing justice for as long as H.O.M.E. has been in existence, I am happy to be here and energized by H.O.M.E.’s mission and its people. I am looking forward to working with you to expand our unique intergenerational housing model to neighborhoods south and west. With your help, we hope to partner with Rush University Medical Center to supplement our home repair and upkeep program with a customized in-home safety and wellness check, enabling seniors to modify their homes to prevent accidents such as falls.

I invite you to volunteer. One way to volunteer is in our upcoming Weatherization Season. In this newsletter, you’ll read about why they return year after year to volunteer with seniors. Join them. Experience the joy of making a new friend of the person whose home you help weatherize.

H.O.M.E. is about love and connection. Fannie Lou Hamer, the courageous southern Black woman who withstood beatings and worse to rise in prominence and yes, visibility, as a civil rights and political leader, gives us the call to action: “It’s in your hands.”

[This essay was written for H.O.M.E.’s Fall 2018 newsletter.]

Gail Schechter

Gail Schechter Consulting, 9033 Keating Avenue, Skokie, IL, 60076