DuPage woman lost her home, found her voice

  • Jill Markussen, left, plays "Sorry with her two sons, Joey, 12, and Franco, 10, in the Wheaton apartment they moved into this summer. Though she is no longer homeless, making ends meet is still a stretch, Markussen said.

    Jill Markussen, left, plays "Sorry with her two sons, Joey, 12, and Franco, 10, in the Wheaton apartment they moved into this summer. Though she is no longer homeless, making ends meet is still a stretch, Markussen said. Suzanne Caraker

  • Studying at the table is an everyday affair for Jill Markussen, who decided to change her career after losing her job and her home in 2007.

    Studying at the table is an everyday affair for Jill Markussen, who decided to change her career after losing her job and her home in 2007. Suzanne Caraker

  • Jill Markussen reflects on the 2 years she and her three children were homeless. She was helped back on her feet by Bridge Communities, and is now an advocate for the homeless.

    Jill Markussen reflects on the 2 years she and her three children were homeless. She was helped back on her feet by Bridge Communities, and is now an advocate for the homeless. Suzanne Caraker

 
 
Updated 10/10/2010 4:04 PM

Jill Markussen wasn't a judgmental person, but she knows she carried stereotypes in her head about who programs for the homeless served.

Perhaps they had substance abuse problems, gambling addictions or mental illness.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Certainly they weren't her and her three children. That couldn't be.

Until it was.

"I was in just such denial, said the single mom who was helped on her feet by the Glen Ellyn-based Bridge Communities transitional program for the homeless. "It wasn't for people who were doing all the right things.

Now employed by the DuPage County Senior Citizen Services and attending college with the goal of becoming a social worker, Markussen has moved with her three children into an apartment in Wheaton.

The 2 years she was without her own home taught her that many people, like herself, don't know who the homeless really are, she said.

"There's many, many more like me out there, she said. "We can't solve the problem if you don't know the problem is there.

Markussen has organized "The New Face of Homeless Symposium to raise awareness of the issue and of the resources available to help. The symposium, which will be from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 13, at the College of DuPage, has attracted more than 50 professionals who include psychologists, social workers, counselors, police, teachers and students, she said.

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The event also will serve as a kickoff rally for Bridge's Sleep Out Night Nov. 6, when organizations and individuals spend the night outdoors to raise awareness and funds for the homeless. The event is held in communities throughout DuPage County, and this year, COD will allow its soccer field to be used as a sleep-out location for the first time, Markussen said.

Markussen, who speaks on homelessness to school and community groups, said she has been struck by the reactions she has gotten from professionals and the general public when they hear her story.

"I would walk out of speaking engagements and people would be gasping, 'No way, you're not homeless,' she said. "It amazed me that people in this field, who work with homeless people, still don't get what it is to be homeless in DuPage.

Joyce Hothan, executive director of Bridge Communities, agreed that Markussen represents a part of the homeless population that many people don't recognize. Many are single mothers or victims of domestic violence. They may have been evicted from an apartment, lost a home through foreclosure, doubled up with family or friends. With the difficult economy, their numbers are growing.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Homeless families are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population, Hothan said. "Truly these are hidden homeless in DuPage County, unlike people who are chronically homeless.

Turn of fortune

Little wonder that Markussen found it hard to believe that she was among the homeless. Talented, hardworking and driven, she had worked her way up to account executive and senior underwriter in the mortgage industry despite never having completed high school.

After 20 years in the business, Markussen was earning $65,000 a year, plus bonuses. With three older children already on their own, she paid an $1,800 monthly mortgage on a house in Medinah, where she lived with her three younger children. She was able to send the kids to private school and take them on fun outings, like camping trips.

Then, in April 2007, the subprime mortgage company where she worked went under. Her employer had been more conservative than some lenders about not making loans to people who couldn't afford them and consequently had less money coming in, she said.

Markussen received no severance package and wasn't paid for the last two weeks she worked. Her children's father, a construction worker caught in the economic downturn in Texas, couldn't help financially.

Seven or eight months after losing her position, Markussen was offered an entry level job with a wireless phone company. The offer was rescinded when the company realized she had no high school diploma, a fact she had disclosed on her application.

With her home in foreclosure, Markussen lost hope. The family spent its last month in the house in December 2007 with the utilities turned off. Markussen went to food pantries to feed her children.

"You feel like such a failure, she said. "How could I not feed my kids?

Markussen knew she had to do something. A friend told her about Bridge Communities and, reluctantly, she called.

"It was probably the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, she said.

Markussen was accepted into the program and she and her kids moved into a three-bedroom apartment in Glendale Heights in January 2008. Rent and utilities were paid by one of Bridge's sponsoring organizations.

She obtained her GED and went on to take classes at College of DuPage. While working part-time at the college, she earned an associate degree with honors this past spring and paid down $6,800 in debt.

Markussen is now enrolled at Governor's State University pursuing a bachelor's degree in preclinical psychology. To minimize her time away from her children Jasmin, 13, Joey, 12, and Franco, 10, she's taking three of her courses online and attending class only one night a week this term.

Her goal is to earn a master's degree in social work, but she said Joey has urged her to go further.

"My 12-year-old tells me, 'Mom, you aren't going to stop with your bachelor's, are you? You're going for your Ph.D., aren't you?' she said.

A week before she graduated from COD, she was offered a job in DuPage County's senior services, where she had done an internship.

Financially, the family's situation is still tight, she said.

"Working wages do not compare to rentals or to housing, she said. "It's an enormous struggle.

Help along the way

Markussen credits Bridge Communities and the two mentors they provided with helping her budget so she can live within her current salary.

"They really help you manage your finances better, she said.

Bridge also helped her keep her children's lives as normal as possible by enabling them to stay in the school they attend, providing tutoring and activities, and even arranging for them to go to summer camp, Markussen said.

"Everything we went through, hard as it was, the kids really didn't feel that much effect because of all the different programs Bridge has for the family, she said.

Bridge also was there for her when her oldest daughter became ill and died, and later when her father passed away, Markussen said.

"They were there for everything, she said. "It was almost like a family.

Molly Howieson, Markussen's case manager at Bridge, said Markussen had the commitment and willingness to change that the organization requires to be accepted into the program.

"We're looking for motivation, she said. "This is a program and it comes with housing. It's not just 'let's go get free housing.'

Bridge currently serves 75 families, nearly all of them single moms with kids. Some of the moms are employed in positions that simply don't allow them to afford housing, Howieson said.

Clients receive employment counseling and are encouraged to get additional education and training that will enable them to be self-sufficient. The program normally extends no more than two years, but Markussen's time was extended so she could complete her associate degree.

Markussen said COD helped her find scholarships to go toward her schooling. She credits Dr. Maryann Krieglstein, coordinator of the college's human services program, with helping her find "her voice.

"Had it not been for her ... I would not be here, she said.

Krieglstein said she did not know Markussen was homeless until she revealed that fact in papers she wrote for class. When the class was doing a unit on homelessness and poverty, Krieglstein asked if she would be willing to share her story. Markussen agreed.

"I think it showed her the power she has with the message she has, Krieglstein said. "When you see Jill, you don't see homeless.

No longer hiding her situation, Markussen took leadership roles in the college's Human Service Networking Club, which is sponsoring the symposium.

"You saw her confidence building, Krieglstein said. "For a teacher, it's easy when you have all that material to work with.

Her experience of homelessness changed her and her family for the better, Markussen said. Her children willingly volunteer with her to help others. Markussen said, for herself, she is less quick to make assumptions about people.

"It made me realize that everybody has their story, she said. "It was a humbling, but empowering 2 years.