Beyond These broken Streets: Life in a Chicago Housing Project

Listen to Chapter 1: The Evolution of Poverty

Music: Undercover Vampire Policeman (Chris Zabriskie) / CC BY 4.0

Ryan Christian Singleton wasn’t prepared for this. After earning his graduate degree in human services, he gathered his clothes and books, packed up his ideals, and headed to the North Side of the Chicago—Uptown, to be exact—to accept a job as a case manager in a low-income housing project, also known as a single room occupancy or SRO. In a building that housed 211 adults, his duty was to stabilize peoples’ lives through crisis intervention and supportive services. He began with answers to the vexing problem of poverty but soon he abandoned these for questions: How does a case manager support a woman whose undiagnosed mental illnesses push her out of a stable housing environment and into a familiar domestic violence situation? How does someone reframe his own notions of normal when the symptoms of decompensated schizophrenia cause a resident to shoot arrows down a hallway in self defense against aliens that he perceives to be in the elevator shaft? Singleton’s queries drove him to write. In reconstructing narratives, he discovered the humanity of Chicagoans who live on the edge of homelessness and housing.

Beyond These Broken Streets is a real Chicagoan’s book. It takes readers inside the low-income housing project where Singleton worked to tell a story of self-determination and to connect people with the city’s most vulnerable adults—those who live with severe mental illnesses and experience poverty.

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Author’s Note:

Nearly all of the tenants I worked with in this book received an income that was between zero and $698 per month. Most had battled several long-term episodes of homelessness, and nearly everyone was diagnosed with a combination of disorders, including substance use, that greatly compromised their physical and mental health. Vulnerability was the norm, and as such, people who experience this level of poverty need layers of privacy to maintain their dignity. Thus, the individuals in this book are composite characters—archetypes, really—whose identities I’ve masked heavily to preserve their anonymity.

Nevertheless, the stories in this book represent where I once worked and what I observed. I didn’t imagine any of this even though I changed the details. The truth lies not in knowing all the particulars; it’s in making sense of the blurred margins and discovering the lives of people who live beyond these broken streets.

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