Crystal Lake woman's journey out of homelessness brings desire to give back

CRYSTAL LAKE – During one of the worst nights within a stretch of bad ones, Johanna Raithel tried to make her four-wheeled apartment a home.

The 23-year-old remembers putting her hot pink comforter across the seat of her 1998 Mercury Mystique. She set out all her little hand-sewn pillows, the products of her own labor. She lay down as best she could, snuggling up on an October evening.

But, like so many of those fall nights, Raithel could not sleep. She could only stare.

“I just remember sitting there, like, this isn’t home,” she said. “I got all my things here, but my kids are with my husband. I don’t have any money. I’m homeless.”

• • •

In technical terms, Raithel is 23 years old. She feels older.

She dropped out of high school at age 16, got pregnant not long after. That was also the year she was diagnosed with ADHD.

She married at age 17, the same year she had her first baby. Another one came two years later.

By 19, she was a married mother of two, a stay-at-home mom.

“I’m only 23, but I feel like I was living in my 30s with kids and a husband,” Raithel said. “All of a sudden, I’m waking up freezing cold in my car.

“I feel like I kind of did my life backwards.”

• • •

In hindsight, Raithel believes ADHD was the root of many of her struggles at Crystal Lake Central.

Her decision to drop out pained her parents, but they maintain they’ve continued to offer support for their daughter.

John Behrens, Raithel’s dad, said that if the disorder created anxiety and depression to the level his daughter has said, they were left mainly in the dark.

“Back then, it wasn’t as common,” Behrens said. “We didn’t get any direction from the schools on how to appropriately deal with it.”

Raithel is convinced she would have been an honor student on her ADHD medication. Instead, she dropped out and married young.

“We grew up and we weren’t kids anymore, and we just didn’t really match,” she said. “I changed as a parent. He changed as a parent. … We needed to go our separate ways.”

In September, the couple separated. The kids went with Raithel’s husband. She kept the apartment through the end of the month, then stayed with a friend for a couple of weeks.

When that didn’t work out, she was homeless.

“We were surprised as anyone was when she was out on the street,” Behrens said. “The whole reason she became homeless was she wanted to get out of her marriage. That was her solution to getting out of a situation she didn’t want to be in.”

• • •

After about a week in her car, an Internet search eventually led Raithel to a PADS homeless shelter.

“I didn’t even spend the night at the shelter that first night just because how overwhelming it was,” she said. “To see people who were homeless, and all the different kinds of people, and this is really happening to me.”

Raithel left that night, went back to her car, didn’t sleep.

She just stared.

That was attempt No. 1.

Attempt No. 2 went smoother. She made it through the night. Eventually, she realized the support that PADS could offer.

The center provided not just a warm bed, meals, gas cards and vouchers for her ADHD meds, Raithel said, but opportunities for friendships. She became close with her roommates.

“I remember, there were some nights where we were just up laughing,” she said. “We kept saying, ‘We’re too happy to be homeless. How are we homeless?’”

But the reality took its toll.

During those days, music – an ever-present pillar in her life – took on an even greater importance. She discovered Ravi Shankar, the renowned sitar player who died last year. The music soothes.

Raithel also would find ways to scrape money together for some jewelry, or a cheap wardrobe piece.

“I remember going to Savers [Thrift Store], like, ‘OK, I’ve got like $2, I could probably get a necklace,’” she said. “I just tried to remain myself and spend a little tiny bit on myself, just to feel normal I guess.”

• • •

In December, things started looking up. Her parents took her back into their Crystal Lake home, and in February she landed a job as a bus aide at a Head Start preschool.

She’s enjoying it, but she doesn’t see her own kids – now 3 and 5 – nearly as much as she used to. They spend most days with Raithel and her parents, but most nights with their dad. Raithel and her husband, John, are due in court late this month.

Her relationship with her parents remains rocky, but it’s improving.

Behrens said he and his wife never lost touch with their daughter, and want nothing but the best for her. Watching her struggle has been, he said, “one of the hardest things a parent can ever go through.”

Still, it took time before they let her back in their home.

“It originally was not an option,” Raithel said. “I think my high school life kind of left an impression on them.

“I actually went to counseling with my parents and kind of fixed our relationship, and they were willing to let me back in the home,” she said. “It feels good to be part of a family again.”

• • •

Lately, Raithel has this new desire to help. With the $20 fee paid by her parents, she’s entered herself into the PADS SleepOut for Shelter event, which is set for May 11. She has a goal to raise $200.

She also has found some professional ambition.

Her current job, she said, provides nowhere near the money she needs to get her own place. But it’s a start. Her long-term goal is to work toward a position that’d allow her to help those with ADHD.

In the meantime, she has her own way of encouraging kids.

“Now every time I see high schoolers, and I’m driving by, I just tell them to stay in school. ‘Stay in school!’” she said, smiling. “It’s the least I can do now.”

Before her separation, Raithel had gotten comfortable in her life as a stay-at-home mom. She assumed, once leaving the relationship, that she’d find a job without much effort, one that would easily provide enough money for her own place.

“It was eye-opening,” she said. “It’s like, real life is real, and it’s really hard.”

But she believes the experience has helped her turn a corner, and she’s ready for the next step.

Her parents are, too.

“[We] know that she can do it, we just need to be patient,” Behrens said. “Our goal for her is to be self-sustaining, independent and successful. There’s no reason she can’t do that.”

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