A Holistic Approach

We're unique. Well, at least for Chicago, that is! Cornerstone Community Outreach does something most homeless shelters in Chicago do not do! We help our residents and many of the local homeless population get their birth certificates and State IDs. Many may not see this as a big deal, but for someone struggling with homelessness, this simple cheap task is enormous and essential.

This piece isn't to bash other agencies. I'm pretty sure some of the smaller shelters, with deeper pockets, have the ability to assist their people in this task. The massive size of our place and our willingness to accept nearly everyone, makes this accomplishment very unique.

Why do I emphasize this? Throughout recent years, certain people have wrongly accused us of just "warehousing" people. I personally feel that accusation is undignified, untrue, full of malicious gossip and stinks of propaganda. I feel we have a holistic approach. I believe we do what we do very well! My goal in this little piece is to demonstrate to our doubters that we do more than just give our clients "three hots and a cot". We try to look at our clients individually and meet their unique needs. Not what they "want", but what they "need". Those needs change drastically from person to person. 

We may receive three referrals in one day, who come from entirely different situations. Let's take look them..

  • The first guy comes in. He's absolutely petrified, he's never been homeless before. He had been working, but the bottom fell out of his business, leaving him unemployed and unable to pay his rent. He hung onto his place until the inevitable day came when he was booted out of his apartment. End result; homelessness. With his remaining savings, he managed to put everything into storage, except for one backpack full of essential belongings. In one of his pockets, he kept his ID, birth certificate and Social Security Card in an overly stuffed wallet. Having never been homeless before, he didn't have a clue of what to do, so he rode on the L-train all night. He hardly slept, but when he finally dozed off, he woke up on Howard Street to find the bottom of his pocket sliced and that precious wallet gone.

  • A second man comes in, he's vastly different from the first guy. He's been homeless for years and is deemed as a "chronically homeless" individual. He suffers from a debilitating mental illness, drinks alcohol every day and usually sleeps in secret locations outside. When the weather gets horrible, he rotates in and out of different shelters. Unfortunately, nobody has ever engaged this man, so he wanders year after year, not medicated and alone. He's "tired of being tired" and wants to be lifted from his grief, so this time, he decides to give CCO a chance. He can't remember the last time he had his ID or birth certificate or even how they came up missing. When asked, he wonders; "Was it the police one of the times I was arrested?" "Was it when my bag was stolen?" "Was it the time all my belongings got soaked in that horrendous downpour?" It's all a mystery to him, but he knows he needs them.

  • A third man comes in, but he's not alone! He's with his family; his wife and their six children. They were victims of a devastating fire. Thankfully no-one was injured. Everything they owned was burnt up in a single night. Both parents are unemployed. They had to pay their rent with their disabled daughter's monthly check of only $674.00. All their food was purchased with their Link Card. Life had been a continuous struggle since they lost their jobs a few years ago. They somehow, and in some mysterious way, managed to survive and stay housed month after month! But now, because of faulty electrical wiring, a slumlord and no smoke detectors, everything's gone and they need to start their journey again. They all stood outside, with tears running down their faces, wrapped in thick woolen blankets, helplessly watching all eight birth certificates, their IDs and too many sentimental family photos being consumed by this mid-winter fire.

All three of these referred people have lived through extremely different realities, yet before they do anything, the first 3 things they all desperately need to put their energy into, is getting their birth certificates, social security cards and State IDs. Why are these documents so essential? The first guy needs them to get employment, enroll in any training and eventually get his own place. The second guy needs them to apply for SSI, see doctors, get into a program to deal with his mental health and substance abuse issues and eventually get his own apartment. The family needs them to apply for any eligible benefits, get their children into new schools, find employment and eventually get themselves a new place to live in. Though their goals may take them down very different roads, they all need the same things to kick-start their "new beginnings".

To illustrate the point even further; when someone has nothing and cannot prove their identity through documentation, the journey to getting these three documents becomes almost impossible. This is the reason why so many chronically homeless individuals live without an ID for years. The formula may seem simple, but it's downright difficult: "you need a State ID to get your birth certificate and you need your birth certificate to get your State ID", or "you need an ID to get your Social Security Card and your Social Security Card to get your ID"; I could repeatedly rearrange the words and the formulas, but you get the gist! You need to have something to establish your identity!

When a nameless, document-less, homeless guy wanders into my office seeking his name, documents and a home, we have to use creativity, knowledge of the system, perseverance and a little portion of effort. I won't go through a step-by-step process because it's different for every person, but it could involve getting one's medical, school and/or prison records. All these documents serve as preliminary purposes to achieving their goals. Depending on where they were born, went to school, hospitalized and incarcerated, determines how quickly a document-less homeless person can establish their identity. I've seen it take someone from Chicago just a few short hours, but I've also seen it take a man born at home in rural Mississippi or a woman born in Puerto Rico several frustrating months. But, eventually, it does happen!

There is also an ever-present fear of being thrown in the "Clinker" for simply being an undocumented person. If someone does not have an ID, the police can put them in jail until their identity is established. Homeless people are continually stopped and frisked because of their time spent "loitering on the street", so they repeatedly rotate in and out of holding cells. This is another example of the criminalization of the homeless. This extends or establishes a "rap sheet", making it harder to get out of their homeless reality. This is a real and genuine fear!

I am going to finish this piece with an actual example. Johnny was homeless, penniless and his ID expired on his birthday in March 2007. Without an income, he was unable to renew it. Over the next couple of years, he rotated in and out of 4 different shelters until he finally came to Cornerstone in January 2009. He was robbed at one of the shelters and was then left without a birth certificate and social security card. He spent all this time without these vital documents.

Johnny tells me how he pleaded for assistance, but was unable to get any. Two shelters told him he didn't have a case manager, one told him his priority should be on getting mental health treatment and not identification and the final shelter attempted to help him, but didn't know how to do it. Two times the police stopped him as he simply walked down Sheridan Rd and asked for his ID; luckily he had his expired one and doesn't have a record, so he didn't have to experience being "locked up". Johnny is a college graduate, with an extensive work history, and he told me how he missed out on many jobs opportunities because of all this.

It wasn't until April 2009 that Johnny finally got that elusive State ID. 25 months later, he had his birth certificate from Kansas, his social security card, and finally, his Illinois State ID. All it took was a few dollars, a postage stamp, a CTA card and people who knew what to do. He felt he was someone again, he had his name, he had an identity and he could move on and up!

Ironically, that year, we hired Johnny as a case manager of the single men, and one of the first things he does is help all homeless, nameless and undocumented men get their State ID. He quickly helps these guys feel they are part of our society. He helps them know they are important. He helps these men know they have a name. He helps these men move up and beyond! He helps give these men hope in a new tomorrow!


* We, at CCO, help about 20 to 30 homeless people get their birth certificates every month and about 15 to 20 people get their State IDs every month.
** The Emergency Fund helps finance the birth certificates. They also used to help fund State IDs, but earlier this year the State declared homeless persons could get their State IDs for free with the correct documents.
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