After two years on the streets, Aurora family finds place to settle in
By Stephanie Lulay firstname.lastname@example.org December 22, 2012 7:56PM
After two years of not having a home, living in and out of Hesed House and motels in the area Destiny Loza and her husband Ramon Loza collapse on the floor of their new apartment home in Aurora on Thursday, December 6, 2012. Thanks to the LIGHT-House program out of Hesed House the family is able to finally have a place to call their own. | Brian Powers~Sun-Times Media
HOW YOU CAN HELP Hesed House
All monetary donations to the Hesed House homeless shelter made before Dec. 25 will be matched dollar-for-dollar up to $25,000 by a generous family, according to Hesed House Executive Director Ryan Dowd.
The shelter is also in need of gift cards and boots.
Online, at help.hesedhouse.org.
By phone, call 630–914–6428.
In person or by mail, Hesed House is at 659 S. River St., Aurora, IL 60506.
Updated: January 24, 2013 6:28AM
“Yeah, I still have it. I don’t even know why it’s in here. I wanted to throw it away.”
Destiny Loza grabs a piece of cardboard from the top shelf of her hallway closet.
“It just says: ‘Homeless with kids — please help,’” she read aloud.
Until two weeks ago, that tattered piece of cardboard was her lifeline, and panhandling near the Westfield Fox Valley Mall had become her life.
“Every cop that was out there had stopped me twice,” the 32-year-old Aurora mother said. “My anxiety was so bad but I had to do it. When you’re out there, it’s so embarrassing. Nerve-wracking.”
When the latest cop put her in handcuffs and called for backup, a sure sign of her impending arrest and towed car, Destiny Loza hit rock bottom.
“I was crying, bawling. The cop said, ‘I understand.’ And I said, ‘No, you don’t understand. I just lost my job. I can’t find work anywhere, I have four kids. I don’t want them to be at the shelter. We can’t sleep in a car. So I had to do what I had to do, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it. Believe me.’”
For two years — 730 days — Destiny and Ramon Loza called the Hesed House homeless shelter in Aurora home. With four kids in tow — daughters ages 7, 8 and 10, and a 5-year-old son — the pair spent each day struggling just to make it to the next day.
But thanks to the Hesed House Light-House program, the Lozas won’t be watching another Christmas pass in the shelter — they’ll be finishing up settling into their new home off of Farnsworth Avenue on Aurora’s near East Side.
“It’s just sinking in, the reality of having it so good,” Destiny said. “The stress level has gone down to almost nothing.”
For two years, it was the same routine.
When the kids got out of class at their West Side school, the family would meet in a park — Austin, McCarty or Phillips — to do homework.
When the shelter doors would open at 7 p.m., they’d have to scramble — mark a spot in the shelter, pray, eat, brush teeth, shower, make bed, sleep. Repeat.
“There’s barely any time to rest when you’re homeless. Sitting on concrete or benches — when you hit the shelter, you’re ready for bed,” Ramon said, now sitting on the family’s couch.
Wake up, eat, be out of the shelter by 7 a.m. In the summertime, get the kids dressed in a public park bathroom. Repeat.
In time, people caught on to the Loza’s secret routine.
“I didn’t know it at first, but (my oldest daughter’s) classmates and teacher were catching on. They’d ask her why she always walked to the park,” Ramon said. “I told her to tell them it’s quality time — mom, dad , kids. Fresh air. It’s good for the brain to do their homework.”
But despite best efforts, the “nightmarish” routine was anything but stable, Destiny said.
“It was always like being on guard. Especially as a parent, you felt like you were always a soldier at war,” Ramon said.
When you’re homeless and broke, something always seems to go wrong.
The Lozas, together for 14 years, ended up at the shelter after Destiny lost her job as a certified nurse’s assistant and Ramon’s construction gigs became unreliable.
If one had a job, the other didn’t, Destiny said, “and it really takes two incomes to raise children.”
The family would stay at a $250 per week motel when they could scrape together the money.
“I would struggle. I would try to get us out of there before we were ready,” Ramon said.
“I really didn’t want to accept that we were there.”
Ramon blames himself for his family’s misfortune. He made mistakes. He never worked toward his GED. At times, he didn’t have a driver’s license. It was his father who sold the house the family was living in.
The van would break down again. They would run out of food stamps.
“It’s hard because I’m a man. I should be able to take care of my family,” Ramon said.
There are three different types of homeless people, according to Hesed House Executive Director Ryan Dowd.
About 50 percent of people served at the shelter stay less than two weeks — they just need a place to stay to get back on their feet again, Dowd said.
About 42 percent of clients stay less than a year and need supportive help to overcome an obstacle — whether it be mental health counseling, job training, kicking a drug habit, clearing a legal case.
The last 8 percent, according to the federal government, are chronically homeless — individuals or families, like the Lozas, who stay in a shelter for more than one year.
Before 2000, those people would live in shelters or on the streets for 10, 20, 30 years, Dowd said.
But during the past decade, the federal government has made a concerted effort to put that last 8 percent into a permanent housing situation by paying their rent and teaming up with a local shelter to provide ongoing services.
“When they started putting people in apartments, serving them in-home, experts found that everything kind of calmed down. Mental health issues calmed down, substance abuse issues calmed down,” Dowd said.
Arrests, visits to the emergency room and the courtroom decreased significantly. Because of that, setting the chronically homeless up in a permanent living situation versus a homeless shelter may actually save taxpayers up to $8,000 per person per year, he said.
“Now you have this scenario — not only is it much healthier for the individual to be sleeping in an apartment, but society actually saves a fairly decent amount per person,” Dowd said.
Heavily investing in the last 8 percent, Dowd said, pays off big for the shelter and the community. Moving people out of the shelter also frees beds for other homeless, allowing Hesed House to help more people.
Through its Light-House program, Hesed House is currently helping 59 people, including 10 families. The program is funded mostly by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but an anonymous donor is also sponsoring one housing situation, Dowd said.
When his family was homeless, Ramon said he felt like he was hitting rock bottom over and over and over again.
But keeping spirits high for his family was always on his mind, he said.
“If I hadn’t, I’d end up depressed and in the looney bin,” Ramon said.
They saw the same scenario play out over and over again in the shelter.
“People get so depressed, they get into drugs. They become alcoholics. Girls become prostitutes,” she said. “I’ve seen it happen to many people down there. They just accept that that’s where they’re going to be for the rest of their life.”
But some pick themselves back up.
“There’s bumps, cracks, in the road,” Ramon said, watching his four kids mark off days on the Advent calendar. “But you’ve got to pick yourself back up.”