Linda Valez's family begged her to come live with them. But the mother of seven repeatedly refused, cheerfully offering relatives a tour of her "home" underneath a stairwell in a Wheaton parking garage.
A pile of blankets and a pillow served as her bedroom. A cardboard box held her prized belongings: a roll of toilet paper, jewelry and clothes. Some nearby bushes were where she freshened up in the morning.
"No normal person would live like that," Gloria Araujo said, recalling the visit she paid her daughter last year. "But she loved it. She was happy living there."
After years of watching Valez's downward spiral as she battled alcoholism and mental illness, her heartbroken family had hoped that sleeping on the streets might be the low point the 33-year-old needed to get back on track.
On Sept. 25, the family's nightmare deepened when Valez went missing. Five days later, police discovered her body buried in Panfish Park in nearby Glen Ellyn. Prosecutors say Valez was stabbed to death by a man, also homeless, with whom she had been in a relationship for about six months. Myron Ester, 45, has been charged with first-degree murder.
Valez's death has left relatives struggling to understand how a woman who grew up in a close suburban family and loved to sing and make people laugh could choose to be homeless and wind up dead — steps away from picturesque homes in an upper-middle-class neighborhood.
Advocates say her story reflects an ongoing dilemma for those working to end homelessness. The problem often is dismissed as an urban one, but thousands of homeless people seek emergency overnight shelter across Chicago's suburbs each year. In DuPage County, nearly three-quarters of the homeless are from the county, officials said.
Although the number of people served by homeless support agency DuPage Pads has remained steady at about 1,400 people for the past three years, officials counted an additional 29 people who refused shelter this year in favor of sleeping in parks, building entryways and other public areas, said Carol Simler, executive director for the agency.
Many of these homeless people are affected by mental illness, substance abuse or debilitating health conditions. Yet stringent suburban law enforcement — which keeps homeless people from congregating or loitering — coupled with an increase in foreclosed buildings in some areas make the fringe group difficult to reach, advocates say.
"It's hard for our staff to see, but at times we have to accept they don't want (help)," said Simler, who said the nonprofit is adding two staff members whose job will be to reach out to those without shelter. "We need to be out there."
Valez, a twin with two other siblings, was born on Good Friday 1980 in Chicago and had an upbeat, faith-filled childhood, said her mother, Araujo.
Araujo, who separated from the father of her children, remembers cradling her new daughters, dressed in matching white dresses with yellow chicks, at church two days after they were born.
As a toddler, Valez belted out all the words to "Never Gonna Let You Go" by Sergio Mendes. She celebrated birthdays with cake and balloons, surrounded by friends, and posed for annual portraits with her siblings and mother, Araujo said.
Things took a turn when Valez became a teenager and her father came back into their lives, said her twin sister, Gloria Valez. While Araujo worked three jobs, the children stayed at their father's. It wasn't long before they dropped out of school, Gloria Valez said.
At age 20, Linda Valez became pregnant, setting in motion a destructive pattern that continued for the next decade. She had six more children, all of whom were removed from her care as she used alcohol and drugs and lost apartments and jobs, relatives said.
She had multiple run-ins with police in the Wheaton and Glen Ellyn areas, with incidents ranging from criminal trespass and resisting a police officer to loitering and spitting on a police car, DuPage County records show.
Araujo is now taking care of Valez's three oldest children. The younger four are in foster care.
Valez's relatives tried to help in different ways, at times bringing her food or blankets and trying to get her housing.
Gloria Valez, who is married and lives in Chicago, repeatedly took her sister in, even when some family members told her not to be an enabler.
"She was sick and she had mental illness. Of course I'd take care of her, why wouldn't I?" she said. "I don't have any regrets. If she was here today, I'd still help her."