Hazardous homes

Environmental issues follow woman from Chicago to Madison

Click the play option above to hear Debra’s story.

Debra’s Written Story

Written by Seth Jovaag


For most of us, “home” is a place where we can put our feet up after a long day and breathe easy.

But for people like Debra Henning, that’s not always the case.

Henning was six years old in 1961 when her family moved to a high-rise apartment complex on Chicago’s south side. For more than three decades, she lived in “the projects.”

At first, Henning said, her new home was a little shocking. For the first time she was hearing profanity and witnessing fights in the hallways. But after a while, her family settled in. Neighbors knew each other and shared food. They grew vegetables and helped maintain the building together, Henning said.

“We cried together, we laughed together, we shared together,” she said. “Everything was togetherness. To this day, me and the people that grew up together, we have, like, 50- to 60-year relationships.”

Henning got her own apartment after her first son was born in 1974. By the 1980s, the projects began to change for the worse, she said.

Crime was rising, and Henning herself witnessed traumatic violence. But beyond that, the environment itself was growing toxic.

Residents lived among asbestos tiles, rusty pipes and the sight of rats, mice and roaches, she said. To keep warm in the winter, Henning would turn up her gas stove—her child’s first bath was next to the oven, in fact. Worse, apartment buildings used incinerators to burn massive garbage piles filled with everything from plastic bottles to diapers.

It seemed people were getting ill all the time, Henning said. Kids wheezed with asthma. Adults were laid up with respiratory problems or cancer.

“It got pretty ugly,” she said. “You walked around in this stuff and inhaled it every day.”

In February, researchers in the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Center for Environmental Assessment released a remarkable study. People of color, it concluded, are much more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air. Specifically, people in poverty are exposed to more fine particulate matter than those who aren’t, and no matter where you look, non-whites are most affected.

Henning’s stories from Chicago sound like anecdotal examples from that larger study. But when she moved to Madison in the 1990s to be closer to her sons and grandchildren, she didn’t leave her troubles behind.

In her Madison apartment, there were fumes from a leaky boiler that made her dizzy, weak, or forgetful. Later came mold from a wet basement that caused respiratory problems for her and her neighbors.

“I would go into these coughing spasms for a good five minutes, non stop,” she said. “It was like my lungs were cleaning out. It was uncontrollable.”

When she was younger, Henning said she was taught not to show weakness. You feel sick? Go to school. You’re sad? Get back to work. Complaining to her landlord didn’t come easy. Yet, when she finally did, he didn’t believe her.

“It was hard for me to deal with him,” she said. “I felt like I was really losing it because the more I (complained), the more (he was) ignoring me.”

In the end, with support from her sons and her doctor, Debra was able to move to a better place. Physically, she’s better now, but psychologically, she’s not fully healed.

“No, that didn’t stop. Today, if I smell anything close to that (natural gas), it draws my attention. And I just gotta stop and put my mind right, focus, (and tell myself) ‘That's just a smell, you're not in harm's way, calm down.’”

For years, Henning was bitter that her home wasn’t always a place where she could breathe easy. But now, she’s trying to focus on what’s going right in her life.

“Overall, from where we come from, I succeeded. I’ve got two sons living and breathing: no gangs, no jails, no drugs, excellent fathers. What more can I ask for? So, I'm grateful. I don’t want to be a millionaire. I’m just grateful.”

Debra is seen here with her granddaughter.

Debra is seen here with her granddaughter.