Kitty Perez’s first name is a nickname. Her birth name is “Katsumi,” and learning that, a person might be forgiven — I hope — for peering closer at the eyes above the mask and asking if she’s Japanese.
She’s not, she says, laughing. Her father named her for a Japanese porn star.
“I was his first kid,” she explains. “So everything was kinda weird.”
We are sitting in the brightly painted main room of the Crib, the Night Ministry’s youth shelter that moved earlier this year from a church basement in Wrigleyville to larger quarters at 1735 N. Ashland Ave. in West Town. The Night Ministry invited me to tour the new space and, so I didn’t visit an empty room, arranged for me to talk with former residents. Perez stood out.
“Right now, I’m sort of in the middle of transition over to an apartment,” says Perez, 19. “I’m also a mother. I have an almost 2-year-old daughter. She’ll be 2 in November.”
And how has that been?
“It’s been hard. I’m not going to lie. My ... well, I don’t call him my ‘partner’ at all. I call him my ‘sperm donor.’ Because he left as soon as I told him. He bounced, completely, to a different state. It’s been hard, especially during the pandemic. I couldn’t find no diapers anywhere. I couldn’t find no wipes. Everyone just stocked up on everything; I couldn’t find anything.”
Then earlier this summer she got COVID-19 and was sick from mid-June to mid-July.
“It was not fun,” she says. “I couldn’t be near my daughter for a whole month. It was horrible. I was upset. I didn’t get to hug her when I sent her off to my godmother’s place. She is everything to me. Literally everything.”
Having a daughter turned her life around. She stopped taking drugs, she says, the moment she learned she was pregnant.
“I wasn’t really ready for a kid,” Perez says. “I was homeless when I found out I was pregnant. Right then, I started home-hopping, to keep myself under a roof the whole time I was pregnant.”
Those with stable lives like to blame people for causing their own homelessness. That’s harder to do with Perez.
“I was born in Chicago and raised in Cicero, Cicero and 56th,” she says. “The household was really horrible. My mother left three days before my 10th birthday. It was traumatizing, at that age. Everything was really blamed on me. That was the first time he kicked me out. He felt my mother left because of me.”
Later she moved back with her dad.
“It was like torture. We gained a lot of weight, because he didn’t know how to cook. It was fast food, sodas. We were obese, all of us,” she says. “Me and my sister were almost 300 pounds.”
She was 10, maybe 11.
“We actually started teaching ourselves to cook,” says Perez. “We started losing weight slowly. I’m at 219, but I’m working on losing weight.
“When I became 15 it became a bigger situation. There were reports to DCFS. He blamed me for it all. My mother came into the picture again, only to start blaming me again. He kicked me out again, and I was homeless.”
The minimum age for the Crib is 18, but Perez says a sympathetic staffer let her in anyway, which helped on her journey toward independence.
I admired her tattoos, little crosshatches and simple creatures on her left arm.
“I did them myself,” she says. “Most of them are from anime. This one is a Dragon Ball. The checkerboards are when the characters get hurt.”
Most are on her left arm because she is right-handed.
“The little cat one I didn’t do,” she says. “My best friend, who passed away in a shooting I witnessed. I was 14 years old. I felt safe at the moment. His mom was super nice to me. We did tattoos on each other. It was my first tattoo. When I got it, my dad ... he was not OK with it. He ended up pulling out a knife and trying to get it out of my skin. He removed some of the ink.”
Perez now has an apartment in Cicero.
“It’s sorta safe,” she says. “I feel accomplished, because now I have somewhere to keep my kid safe.”
None of this has kept Perez from having a plan and working toward a future.
“I barely finished junior high,” she says. “But I’m going back to school. Truman College is doing GED classes. ... I graduated from HIV testing and counseling. I’m able to help the community helping me.”
She has job interviews coming up.
“I’m doing great,” she says. “I’m not going to lie. I’m doing great.”
We finish our conversation and, rising to go, I realize I’d forgotten to ask something:
Her daughter — what is her name?
“Xochitl,” Perez says.
“A beautiful name,” I say. Aztec for “flower.”
“My father named her” she replies. “After one of my grandparents.”