For nine years, Elbert J. crashed in parks, schools, abandoned buildings and basement stairwells of churches—any public space in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood that offered a semblance of shelter and would accommodate a stoned and homeless African-American man.
“I was a winehead. A straight winehead,” he says. “I didn’t learn how to use crack cocaine until I got 50 years old. I asked for a cigarette. And I didn’t know the cigarette was laced with crack cocaine. That first day I spent $400.”
The 62-year-old man says now that he drank and used drugs to fit in, to be part of a group and “one of the crowd.” But what he didn’t realize, he adds: “I was just a throwaway.”
How true that was became very clear when Elbert learned, while staying with family in Nashville, Tenn., after his mother died in 2005, that he was HIV positive. “They packed up all my stuff and got me a one-way ticket to Chicago.”
Back in Chicago, he wound up in a treatment program then in county jail, where he became so sick that whatever denial he’d felt about his illness swiftly fell away. After jail time then escaping from another treatment center, his probation officer found him back on the south side. The threat of five years in a downstate prison spurred Elbert to complete two treatment programs. That’s when, finally clean in 2008, he qualified to become a resident of Bonaventure House.
“They welcomed me with open arms,” he says. “That’s my new family. That’s my new world.”
When he moved in, he couldn’t read above a third-grade level. He didn’t know how to shop or manage his money. He had never bought clothes for himself. “I didn’t know how to socialize,” he says. “All I knew was how to be obedient.”
Now, after having graduated from the transitional housing program, he has his own apartment, does his own shopping and cooking, and goes to school three days a week. “I have one goal to reach, and that’s to get my GED. And I’m not letting nothing come in between it. So from a third-grade level to a seventh-grade level, I’m not far away. At the age of 62.”
His case manager, Nora Johnson, has known Elbert since he first came to Bonaventure House, when she was still an intern. “He is a completely different person than he was then,” she says. “Seeing Elbert and seeing his dedication to going to school and maintaining his sobriety and maintaining his apartment, and he’s budgeting and paying his bills on his own, motivates me and fuels me to stay and continue to do the work that I do.”
Elbert credits Nora with much of the success he’s achieved since 2008. “When she came through this door, I didn’t know whether God sent her, who sent her, what sent her. But when she became my case manager and showed me from her heart what she’s about, that made a different impression on my life,” he says. “Because it was the first time I felt relaxed with a person that really cared. Not only to do her job but enjoyed doing it from her heart. And I stand up for that every day. Because you don’t find people like that. It’s a rarity. Very rare.”
To maintain his success and to stay clean and focused on his goals, Elbert adds, “I just go to God. I go to meetings. And I try my best to not disappoint the people that’s in my corner. Because it took a lot of whatever they have to put up with me. And I think the fight was worth it.”
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