Testimony by NOMI MICHAELS DEVEREAUX, Age 32, Chicago
Titled: "A Year on the Streets at 17 Remembered"
Everything changed the year she turned 17.
Nomi Michaels Devereaux started to come out as transgender that year. She discovered Boystown. And she spent her first night on the street, a night that 15 years later, she still remembers perfectly.
"I relive it quite often," she said. "It was scary…I was walking around. I didn’t know where to go. I went up to the lake. There was, like, this fitness court. I just sat there, and the police came and they kicked me out of there. So, I just walked all the way up north, found some plastic in a dumpster and wrapped myself up in it and fell asleep near a tree."
Devereaux, 32, now works at The Crib, The Night Ministry’s LGBTQ-affirming shelter.
And while she works with young people whose housing situations are as complicated as hers once was, only recently did she tell old friends that she was also once homeless.
Devereaux grew up on Chicago’s South Side in the Ida B. Wells Homes in Bronzeville.
Her mother had been a singer in New York, and her father owned some clothing stores in Chicago. For a time during her youth, her family enjoyed a bit of wealth. Her father’s stores did well, and the family moved into a large house.
"You know, we got everything," Devereaux said. "And going to this elite public schools and everything."
But over time, that life unraveled. Unknown to the family, her father had been running a side business selling drugs. He had had four kids outside of his marriage. When Devereaux’s mother found out, she divorced him. Her father also had an affair with the wife of a business associate, who murdered him in retaliation.
The family’s house was repossessed, and they moved back into public housing.
Devereaux’s mother was raising her four kids and two cousins.
"Six kids, and we’re living in the projects where they’re shooting at the windows," Devereaux said. "And [my mother is] on welfare, and she’s going to school."
Despite the stress, Devereaux’s mother always made time to teach her child everything she could about how to survive in the world.
"She was amazing," Devereaux said. "She gave me everything. It’s like she knew that she wasn’t going to be here because, everyday, she would stop me in the middle of the street to explain something to me."
Her mother told her to stay in school no matter what. When Devereaux ran home crying one day because classmates called her a fag, her mother told her to deal with it. She was going to be called a fag her whole life.
Devereaux was a handful from a young age, she admitted. She finished her work too quickly and spent her free time disrupting class or just walking out. In fifth grade, she made a decision to stop attending altogether for a while.
By the time she was 12, her school believed she needed more help than her mother could provide, Devereaux said. Her mother suffered a nervous breakdown around that time, and Devereaux ended up in foster care.
She moved in with a foster family of six.
"My foster mother was physically abusive to me," she said. "I was like Cinderella."
In the house, Devereaux was raped repeatedly. Within six months, she was relocated to a group home outside the city. A year later, her mother regained custody.
Devereaux returned to a new home that her mother, now a Chicago Public Schools teacher, had purchased.
In time, she confessed to her mother that she felt she was a girl. Her mother already knew.
"My brother was like, ‘don’t encourage that,’" Devereaux remembered. "And she was like, ‘It’s whatever. You’ll be a great person.’ But she knew. She wanted me to be real."
When Devereaux was 16, her mother died of breast cancer, and their house was sold.
Devereaux stayed with family for a while, but eventually family members kicked her out.
She was 17, transgender and in high school.
That first night, a snow-covered evening in March, Devereaux learned that plastic could keep a person warm even in the coldest weather.
"It was tough, sleeping in the snow and being homeless," she said. "I kept busy. I got up early in the morning, walked. Honey, I was so thin back then."
She slept by the lake most nights. In the morning, she would walk from the lakefront to Mather High School. She arrived at school early enough to slip into the showers with the sports teams that practiced before classes. After school, she might go to a friend’s house.
Devereaux still struggled with school, but she remembered her mother’s words, and she stuck it out. When teachers passed out books, Devereaux often finished them overnight. She arrived to school with nothing to do, and she didn’t hide her boredom.
"I didn’t really smoke, but I would light up a cigarette and be walking down the halls smoking a cigarette," she said.
She constantly got into trouble for hanging out in the girls’ bathroom, too.
Parentless, she attended her own parent/ teacher conferences, where teachers told her that she was a great student with an atrocious attitude.
Neither her school nor friends caught on to the fact she was on her own. Devereaux made up stories to cover her tracks, and friends often invited her over, so she seldom had to make up excuses about why they couldn’t come to her house.
Overall, she had a “fabulous experience,” she said.
While she was visibly gender-variant, she didn’t allow anyone to bully her, and her best friends were the girlfriends of popular jocks.
Among her friends was a guy who lived with his aunt in Lincoln Square. Devereaux went to visit him one day, only to find he had moved. As she was walking away from the building, she noticed a key in the basement door. She opened the door and found rows of empty storage units and a washer and dryer.
She moved in immediately.
There were so many unassigned storage units, that no one noticed one closed door, which Devereaux rigged with a lock. She cooked food on the burner of an old coffee maker she had found and did homework under the basement light. Other tenants saw her so often they assumed she lived there.
"I felt like I had my own place," she said.
Still, she had nightmares about getting caught.
But for much of the time that she was homeless, she didn’t see herself that way at all.
"I identified other people as homeless, but I didn’t identify myself as homeless," she said.
"To me homeless was a stigma: You’re dirty, you smell, you’re begging for change, you’re missing teeth, your hair is not together. Homelessness was a symbol, and I didn’t fit that symbol… when I found Boystown, that’s when it really hit me—I’m really homeless."
Devereaux had been dressing in women’s clothing and heard about Boystown, somewhere around Clark Street.
She rode the Clark bus up and down looking for signs of it, missing it without even knowing. One day, she finally found her way to the store Gaymart and asked the owner to direct her to Boystown. He pointed out the window.
Devereaux began hanging out in Boystown frequently, and she met other young people who were also without housing. That’s when she started to identify as homeless.
That year, Devereaux graduated high school. She went on to study film at Columbia. It was seven more years before she finished her college degree. She experienced bouts of homelessness throughout that time, but she also saw much of the country, staying with friends in New York and Atlanta, among other places.
She pursued a career in singing, a dream she says she has not given up.
She recently told high school best friends that she had been homeless for part of high school. They were shocked.
Today, Devereaux is open about her history with the young people she works with, and she is open with others as well.
About two years ago, Devereaux was planning to leave Chicago and move to New York. She went to Lakeview one night to say goodbye to friends at The Night Ministry’s health outreach bus. A service provider told her that The Night Ministry was about to open a youth shelter in the neighborhood, and they wanted her to work there.
"I had to think, this isn’t just about me," Devereaux said.
Devereaux turned down a job in New York and started work at The Crib, the best decision of her life, she said.
At The Crib, Devereaux puts her own experiences to work. She employs a bit of tough love when she feels young people are making excuses, but she also knows when the youth are struggling.
"I can look at a person, and I know what’s going on," she said. "It’s funny because a lot of the trans people there, they don’t believe I went through all of that."
Part of the problem with youth homelessness, Devereaux thinks, is the stigma associated with homelessness that prevents people from acknowledging it.
"People even today can’t fathom the idea that youth are homeless on the streets," she said. "It’s just ridiculous to think that it happens. That’s why it’s such a big issue…The idea—it’s like aliens riding the Red Line."
Published by Windy City Times, 12/12/12