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Street-Level Youth Media is a non-profit, media arts literacy organization serving Chicago's youth.  We teach audio engineering, mixing, video production, digital photography, online journalism, and more.  If you are between the ages of 12 through 24, all of our programs and services are free.

If you live in Chicago and are between 12 - 24 years old, come take part in one or all of our media arts programs, book a private studio session, use our computer lab or join one of our clubs.  We also host an open-mic on the first Friday of each month.  

The Three Ds

Mild Sauce

A Youth-Run Webzine From Chicago.

The Three Ds



Jahmil Thomas What would you do if your support system was suddenly and completely cut off? "The Three D's" is a moving autobiography about youth homelessness in the city of Chicago. Affected by the criminal justice system and a lack of job security, this personal narrative gives an inside look at what it is like to work through extreme hardship as a homeless youth. This piece also dives into the systems that force members of a community into criminal behavior in order to survive.

The Three Ds

Manhood chose me at the age of 16. At that time, I was not prepared for that role, but there was no way I couldn’t accept the responsibility. I was content with living a normal teenage life, but fate had other plans for me. It’s amazing how one phone call altered my life and turned the world I once knew upside down. It was a regular day, just like everyday of my life. I was eating a bowl of instant ramen with a bag of Cheetos while watching reruns of "Martin." The phone rang. I started to ignore it, but I had a feeling it was my father.

“Hello,” I answered, halfway laughing from the show. “What’s up, dad. Where are you?”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m calling you about. I’m not going to be coming home."

“What do you mean you’re not coming home?”

“I don’t have time to explain, but I’m in lockup. I’m getting transferred to the county in the morning. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone, but I’m sure it’s going to be for a while.”

“Dad, what the fuck am I supposed to do?” That was the first time I had ever used profanity towards my dad.

“Michael, I need you to be strong. You’re a man now. I know you’re not prepared for this. You’ve never been on your own before, and quite frankly, you shouldn’t have to go through this. I’m sorry, son.”

“What about the apartment? Rent? What am I going to do?” I asked.

“Michael, now’s not the time for weakness. You go out and find a job. Do what you need to do survive. I’m counting on you, son.”

(In the background) “Time’s up.”

“I have to go now. I love you, Michael.”

“I love you too, da-” Before I could finish he had to hang up.

The dial tone caused me to go into a trance, making me see a grim future for myself. I envisioned myself homeless and on the street begging for spare change. All types of negative paths flooded the forefront of my mind. I finally snapped out of it. Realizing I had no plan on how I would survive without my father. I was 16 years old, and my dad had not raised me well enough to truly stand on my on. Although I was not ready, I had no choice. My path was chosen for me, and I had no choice but to walk it alone.

I decided to skip school the next few days after that. I spent those days out searching for a job. In the beginning, it was a waste of time. Every place I went to told me to go apply online. Other places gave me an interview on the spot, just for them to tell me I lacked experience. How much experience do you need to bus tables or wash dishes? I figured my best bet was to go to the library and fill out a form; I hadn’t been to a library since I was a child.

I had no idea that I couldn’t get online without a card. Once I got my card I went straight into action. I spent two hours looking for jobs since that was all the time the library allowed online. Most of the time spent on the applications included me answering miscellaneous questions about my characteristics. It was evident that I would not be able to apply to all the places I needed to in just two hours. I would have to go there everyday if I wanted to get results.

Due to the fact that I only spent two hours at the library, it made more sense to just go after school. On weekends I would go to the locations and check the status of my application. They would tell me, "Oh, we’ll call you in about a week.” But I never received any calls. Other people would act as though I had no business looking for employment in their establishment (that was mostly when I went into the more WASP-y neighborhoods.

A full month and half passed by and discouragement started to settle within me. Desperation and depression followed behind it. I knew my days were numbered.  Bills in my father's name were starting to pile up. All of them overdue. I had been dodging calls from my landlord for days. I couldn’t think of a solid excuse to tell him, so it was pointless to pick up. It wasn’t like I could tell him the truth. If I did he’d have no choice but to call social services. I knew I’d go into foster care and get lost in the system.

That was until those visions I had of myself being homeless came true one day, when I came home after school and there was an eviction notice on my door. I had 48 hours to remove myself and my belongings from the premises or the police would do so. That night I contemplated suicide for the first time. I figured it would be easier if I sat in a warm bath and slit my wrists. As the blood would flow from my veins into the water, my problems would leave me.

“I’d have a better life in the next.” That’s what I kept telling myself. As I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, my mind was taking a turn for the worse. Life was not kind to me. My world as I knew it was falling apart. I was 16, about to be homeless and suicide looked like the solution. A part of me was on board; the other part that mattered knew that suicide was the coward's way out.

I was still a teenager and I had my whole life ahead of me. Even though I was facing homelessness, there was still no reason to give up. There was so much left for me to accomplish. I couldn’t just take my life so early in this game we call life. The silence of my room was causing my mind to wander and I needed to focus on something other than my problems. I grabbed the remote, so I could watch television, but it wouldn’t come on. I violently kept pressing the on button but to no avail. “Maybe it needs some batteries,” I thought to myself out loud. I got up to turn on the lights, but they didn’t come on as well. The electricity was off.

The weight of the world sat itself upon my shoulders. I started to laugh hysterically. Tears poured down my face. A mixture of emotions swam within my soul. The laughter caused my side to cramp. I wanted to stop; there was no reason for laughter. My situation was not humorous at all. The more I wanted to stop, the harder I laughed. My first night of being homeless was spent sleeping on the train.

That night caused me to curse God. How could he let this happen to me? What did I do to deserve needing to sleep on public transportation? The only things I had from home were five outfits that I was able to stuff in my book bag. I had to wash up in public bathrooms. People would come in and I’d get embarrassed, but eventually I got used to it.

For food I would go to Pacific Garden, a homeless shelter in Chicago. Everyday at 5 p.m. they would serve dinner. The catch was that I had to sit through a forty-five minute sermon. I hated having to sit through it. I wanted nothing to do with God, let alone, sit through a sermon and listen to how great of a creator he was. Sometimes it was worth it, though. On occasions they’d serve us some really good food. On days where they would get lazy, they would serve us bologna sandwiches and soup. The worst, but I guess beggars can’t be choosers.

Other days I would go dumpster diving behind Jewel's. They would throw out whole rotisserie chickens and desserts. I’d find all kinds of things in their dumpster. I couldn’t take much, because I didn’t have a fridge to store any of it. So, whatever I took had to last.

One day I went dumpster diving and didn’t find anything. I figured the local bums beat me to the punch. As I climbed the fence that had the dumpster blocked off, a passerby noticed me.

“Are you Michael?” he asked, looking at me as if he knew me.

“What’s it to you?” I shouted back.

“I haven’t seen you since you were a kid, but you still look the same. Your dad know you’re digging in garbage and shit? Your dad and me used to be friends years ago. I’m sorry to hear he’s locked up. Boy, you look just like your old man. How old are you?"

“Nah, 16,” I said, annoyed. I was in no mood for conversation. I didn’t find any food and I was starving.

“My name is, Jamie, by the way,” he said as he extended his hand for a handshake.

“Nice to meet you,” I said, while shaking his hand. “I’m sorry, but I don't remember you."

“Are you hungry?” he asked. He laughed, but I didn’t get the joke.

He then told me to come with him and he’d buy me something to eat. I was pretty skeptical. He seemed like a nice guy, but I thought it was weird for a grown man to offer to take a strange kid out to eat. I started to think maybe this guy was some kind of pervert. My stomach was touching my back, so I decided to test it. I told myself that if he tried anything funny, I’d karate chop him in the throat and rob him. He was dressed pretty snazzy and had expensive shoes, so I figured he had money.

We walked to his car. It was a 2015 Audi. My assumption of him having money was very correct. He took me to a restaurant called Huck Finn. I ordered pancakes and scrambled eggs with cheese. I made sure I savored every bite. It had been so long since I had tasted pancakes. Jamie started tell me about him and my father.

According to him, they were pretty heavy in the drug game before I was born. Once my mother, who’s deceased now, got pregnant, my dad stopped.

He said that he had a job for me. Finally, my life was going to change for the better. He said that he’d front me an eight ball of cocaine, show me how to cook it and double my profit. All I had to do was pay back the eight ball he fronted me and continue to buy from him. I was completely baffled. I told him I didn’t know anything about cocaine and not only that, I didn’t have the clientele for it. He told me not to worry about the clientele. He had a place for me to set up shop and once I made my presence known, the fiends would come. All I had to was pay him back.

“Why are you doing this?” I asked, stuffing my mouth with pieces of pancake. "You don’t even know me, and you’re sitting here saying you want to front me coke and let me set up shop."

“Well, you’re right, I don’t know you. But I can look at it you and tell that you need help. I was once in your shoes a long time ago. I’m now in a position where I can show you how to make money. Just like your father once showed me.”

There was a long pause after that. We sat there looking square in each other’s eyes. He broke the silence.

“Decisions determine destiny. You can either take my hand and prepare to put your life back on course or you can continue to rummage through trash and pray that things get better.”

That was the moment I decided to become a drug dealer. For some reason, I had complete faith in him. I guess with all the things that were going on in my life, I needed something to put my faith in.

Materially speaking, he had everything. Nice car, fancy clothes, a condo downtown. All gained from drug money. He had the blueprint for street success and I was going to follow it to a “T.”

He did everything he said he would. He fronted me the drugs and I hustled out of a two-bedroom house that was in the name of some old lady that lived in the basement. I sold crack cocaine out of that house from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. After four months of hustling, I was making $900 a day. I was no longer homeless: I had bought a studio apartment for $450 a month. Every time I came home I felt at peace. It was the first time I felt safe.

I made sure to never buy anything too gaudy. Even though I started making enough money to live across from the lake, I still chose to live in my small apartment. It seemed like the smart thing to do. I didn’t want people to see me and know I was a drug dealer. I did everything

Three years went by. The trap house I had once hustled in had been raided. Thankfully, I wasn’t there and no drugs were found. I had moved all the drugs into a girl’s house that I had met. In exchange for her help, I paid her rent. I bought a used car and did deliveries to the fiends that once came to the drug house. At the age of 19 I had over $270,000 stashed away in a storage unit. I was no longer stricken with poverty, but I still had not fully escaped it. It was still within my vision. Every person I sold drugs to had been destroyed by poverty. I was selling the substance that they used to cope. Even though I found a way out for myself, I was still part of the problem. I knew that I sold poison to my own people, but there was no way I could stop.

I didn’t want to go back to sleeping on trains. I had never worked a legitimate job and I gave up on school once I started dealing. I thought that if I was to make things right, I had to give back something.

I left the house late one night to make a delivery. It was midnight. I normally didn’t make deliveries that late but the guy was only a few blocks away and he was a regular costumer. Before I could put my hand on the door handle of my car, someone approached me from behind. Suddenly, I felt a gun press up against my back. The person hadn’t spoken yet, but I knew this was a robbery. He told me to empty my pockets and put my keys on the roof of the car. I could tell by his voice that it was kid. The streetlight from above allowed me to see his face in the window and I could see the fear in his eyes. This wasn’t something he did on the regular. I told him I was reaching in my pockets. That’s when I decided to take action. I quickly turned around and knocked the gun from his hands.

I slammed him against my car, picked the gun up and violently shoved it in his mouth. He started crying, sheer terror was the only thing I could see in his eyes. His clothes were very dirty. He smelled as though he hadn’t showered in weeks. That was when it all hit me. This kid was like me, three years ago. It wasn’t his fault that he tried to rob me. It was the system’s. This world had failed him and he resorted to crime. Poverty is the father of crime. He was only doing what he felt was needed for his survival. I felt that it was needed for me to help him. Just as Jamie helped me three years ago.

“How old are you kid?” I asked, while pulling the gun from out of his mouth.

“I’m 15, please don’t kill me!”

“I’m not. Relax. What I am going to do is give you a decision to make.” I reached into my pocket and pulled out $900.

“Decisions determine destiny and right now you’re about to make one that’s going to alter the course of your life. You can either take this money and go about your business, or I can give you a job and show you how to make money on your own. What’s it going to be, shorty?”

He wiped the tears from his face, stood up straight, looked me square in the eyes and said, “I choose door number two.”

The End.