Visiting Our Rotating Sick and Incarcerated Friends!

Homeless people are some of the most vulnerable people living in our cities and towns. Many of these folk just rotate in and out of Emergency Rooms and County Jails on a regular basis. That's why a program like 100k homes is so essential. When The 100K program meets with, and surveys, our homeless population, their staff determine who is the most vulnerable and gets them into housing as soon as possible. This Housing First model helps the homeless individual regulate their health in a safe environment and get the rest they desperately need. It has also been proven to be a very cost effective model because it results in a huge decrease in hospital visits, ambulance rides and petty jail sentences for minor infractions.

Cornerstone Community Outreach, the homeless shelter where I work, actually had the person 100K homes deemed as the most vulnerable, periodically staying with us and frequenting our cafeteria daily. I know her and her extremely sick boyfriend very well, and they would spend their lives rotating in and out of our local Uptown hospitals. Seizures, congestive heart failure, alcoholism and many other symptoms plagued their fragile lives. I would bump into Sheena, and she'd tell me how Archie had "fell out" and an ambulance had came and took him to the ER. About a week later, I'd see the freshly released Archie, and he'd tell me how Sheena had had a seizure and an ambulance came. This was their cycle! This was their life!

I wrote a brief story about them a few months ago: watching the world rush by

We can celebrate because Sheena and Archie are now successfully housed. I, and a few others in CCO, have worked extensively with some of the 100K outreach workers to help locate and house some of these extremely vulnerable homeless people. Yet unfortunately, a dire problem remains, despite the few successful programs like 100K, coupled with the ceaseless work and dedication of their outreach workers: hundreds of very sick, highly vulnerable, exploited and ignored individuals remain rotating in and out of shelters, hospitals, nursing homes and jails, desperately needing to be rescued from Chicago's dangerous streets. They need housing! They need stability! They need safety! They need support! They need community!

As a shelter, Cornerstone gravitates away from the norm! As our sickly residents and local homeless folk end up in hospitals or nursing homes, we try and visit them. This is obviously not in our "scope of services"; in other words, visiting the sick and incarcerated is not a requirement from CDFSS and is not something we get paid for, but it is something we see as essential, important and necessary.

As a follower of Jesus, a child of his Kingdom and believer in the power of the Gospel, I cannot escape what Jesus said in his parable of the "Sheep and the Goats." He said, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me!" (Matthew 25:34-36)

Confused, the sheep asked the king a couple verses later, "when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?" The king answered; "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me!"

At Cornerstone, our mission is to obviously help our clients (along with the locally homeless and precariously housed folk) with the first four things Jesus mentions; hungry and thirsty people are able to come inside to get a hot meal and a drink, we have our Free-Store full of donated clothes to choose from and we welcome homeless strangers inside by giving them beds to sleep in and case-managers to eventually help them find their own place to live in.

As we have gotten to know the hundreds of homeless people who have entered our lives, our mission changes and becomes more encompassing. Too many of these people we know and love are plagued by the woes of homelessness. The reality is: homeless people have compromised immune systems, some are victims of hate crimes, many are suffering with PTSD and a host of other mental illnesses and far too many are constantly standing at deATh's door! (deATh's door was a piece I wrote; it's about a number of my homeless friends who have passed away)

The truth is, the homeless population will not stop rotating in and out of Emergency Rooms as long as we have unaffordable health care for the "least of these." They are sadly released from the hospital often still in a compromised state, and being without an income or insurance, they are therefore unable to get the medication they desperately need. They also are unable to relax in a bed to rest their weary bones and start on the path to recovery. Meanwhile, those with an income and insurance, are able to get the medication and rest they desperately need and quickly be restored to health.

The truth is, the homeless population will not stop rotating in and out of County Jails as long as we have a justice system that locks people up for non-violent and petty offenses like loitering, sleeping in a park, drinking on a public way and minor possession charges. Without an income, they are unable to afford to bail themselves out, and they remain sitting in a cell until the Judge grants his or her judgment. Meanwhile, those with an income, and often with far greater offenses, are able to bail themselves out, hire a quality lawyer and stay connected with their community. I go into a lot of details about all this in this piece I wrote: Casting Stones

There is another reality about our rotating sick and incarcerated homeless friends, they often don't have the family or friends who can afford to bail them out, or pay for their hospitalizations, aftercare and medications. They are often alone. They need people. This is why Jesus placed so much emphasis on visiting the sick, dying and incarcerated. This is why Jesus spoke the "sheep and goats" parable and emphasized the need to get down with the "least of these!" His parables always challenged and provoked the elitist mindsets of His day! This is why Jesus emphasized the Kingdom of God, which stated "blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of God!" He knew that other empires (politics, government etc.) were more interested and focused on the pursuit of money and power, than in uplifting and helping the poor and downtrodden!

We cannot instantly change the Health Care and Justice systems, they are too big and ingrained in our culture. There are a lot of good advocacy groups trying to do that, but as individuals, we can and must do random acts of subversive kindness. We can bring the Resurrection power to our hospitals, nursing homes, jails and prisons. As Jesus taught us to pray in the Lord's Prayer; we need to bring heaven to earth! This recently happened in Weiss Hospital, when my homeless friend Jerome was involved in a horrible accident and the sheer number of his visitors shocked all the doctors, nurses and receptionists in the hospital. Jerome had tears in his eyes at all the masses that surrounded his bed.

I recently wrote his story also: Collapsing Walls and A Snapped Femur

I cannot remember the first homeless person I visited in hospital or jail. I do remember my fear, anxiety and excitement of those first visits. I had to build up my courage to wander through the doors or gates. I took with me companions like Beth, Scott or Darrell. As someone who struggles with social anxiety, I was concerned about saying wrong or inappropriate things, I was concerned they wouldn't want to see me and I was concerned about praying a stupid shallow prayer. It is also a fearful experience entering the locked and intimidating gates of Cook County Jail. Those fears, however self-absorbed, illogical and irrational they may have been, they were very real to me, and I had to gather up as much courage and faith I could muster, to actually do what Matthew 25 mandates.

Now a lot of those early fears may have disappeared, but visiting the sick and incarcerated is not a simple task. It takes time and the person may require a little more than just our mere presence. It is hard to visit someone incarcerated for something small and insignificant, while you know many people who have done the same thing and have never seen the inside of a squad car, let alone a jail cell. It is hard to yell through six little holes in bullet proof glass, while they weep on the other side begging for a hug. It is hard to sit next to someone hooked up to machines and asking why God did this to them. It is hard to sit in the ICU next to a comatose person. It is hard to know that visiting a sick individual may result in a whole lot of new responsibilities when he or she is released. It is hard to know this person may die!

But blessings reign down too and, quite frankly, overshadow the difficulties. It is a blessing to walk down the street and the released prisoner comes up, hugs me with tears running down his cheeks, and say "thank you! That letter, that visit meant so much; It was the first I ever had!" It is a blessing to know they were blessed by my visit, sometimes the only visit (or letter) they've ever had. It is a blessing to pray with someone while they lay in their hospital bed, they often have a big smile on their face. It is a blessing to fellowship with the person's family and friends around that bed, they often ask us to join hands and pray together. It is a blessing to advocate for the person, making sure they're not ignored and forgotten because of their poverty stricken state, so they may get some long term help.

All these things may seem small and insignificant, yet they are relatively simple acts that are huge blessings to that lonely man or woman suffering in a hospital bed or locked in a cage. They remember it. They don't forget. These visits speak more of God's Kingdom and His Resurrection Power, than all the countless tasks that we endlessly run around doing. A lot of us who work at CCO can testify about people coming up to us and saying something like: "Thank you for visiting me, I couldn't believe it when you came in, it's something Jesus would do!" To them; that brief moment in time, that simple visitation, was "Thy will being done, on earth as it is in heaven!"

Papi showed up on my doorstep at JPUSA struggling to breathe, struggling to walk and struggling to live. He had just been released from the hospital, where I had visited him a couple days earlier. I had known him for years! At that time he was homeless, but he wasn't staying at CCO. Papi is a spunky Cuban in his seventies, who had just had major heart surgery and kidney failure. The hospital simply released him with a walker, a day's worth of medicine and no place to go. Papi struggled down a few city blocks to see me, so I got him a bed and a meal over at Cornerstone. His story didn't stop there; due to his deteriorating health and a new life on dialysis, he lives a continual drama of rotating in and out of the hospital. Many people at CCO have embraced Papi, by taking him to and from dialysis three times per week (especially Chris and Sandy), his frequent appointments and trying to utilize the free clinics to get him all his medication. It's very time consuming and ceaseless because he's old and not getting healthier. Last week, we had to call 911 for him because he collapsed and he spent nearly a week recovering in the hospital. Papi does what he can to bless us and say "thank you", he constantly shuffles around our first floor doing our dishes and making all of us coffees throughout each day.

Papi's story is just one tale of countless stories! My blog is full of them. We are Papi's family, we are the people he trusts and loves! I have written about Papa G and his ongoing saga. I have written about Abdul and visiting him in prison. We become their family, their people, their lifeline, their advocates and the ones they love!

Visiting "the least of these" in these places of depression, bondage and death is not always easy, in fact it can be very difficult, but it is always a blessing! Why? because in doing so; we are bringing about the reality of God's kingdom into their lives, we are bringing heaven to earth as Jesus wants us too and the power of His Gospel is being actualized in this grim place called planet earth. This is why Jesus wanted his followers to live out and do the six deeds mentioned in the "sheep and the goats!"
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