It Just Ain't That Simple!

Let me tell you; it just ain't that simple!

There's a lofty myth floating around Uptown, Chicago; it claims that getting into permanent housing for chronically homeless people is a relatively easy task; all someone needs to do is, put in a little effort, and then, simply reach out and grab it! But, let me tell you; it just ain't that simple!

Uptown's been all over the Chicago news recently, intensifying this very myth! A myth that trickles well beyond the borders of the 46th Ward and splatters itself in various forms throughout this country and the whole world....
  • As we observe hordes and hordes of poverty-stricken and homeless men, women and children lining up for shelter, food and clothing throughout our neighborhoods, it triggers some form of emotion in each of us. 
  • As we see homeless people sleeping under viaducts, on loading docks and the trains we ride on, those same emotions are intensified! 
  • As some poor soul, with a dirty cup, staggers up to our cars, our moving feet or as we enjoy a meal, begging for a little change, some form of emotion wells up in each of us.
When we see people experiencing homelessness, compassion may flood our very souls, or maybe anger may roar deep within us! Some people actively choose to ignore our poor brothers and sisters, while others are compelled to diligently embrace them and "do" something! For some of us, love may saturate every inch of our beings, while for others, feelings of bitter raging hatred for homeless and poverty-stricken folks may grip us tightly.

We're talking about folks who are just trying to survive the day-to-day, and how their mere existence and the sight of them can divide a community!

Whatever our response may be, we cannot deny that seeing homeless people causes some form of emotion in each and every one of us. Deep down, we all know that homelessness should not exist in such an affluent society or a world that has enough resources to eradicate hunger and poverty! When we see a woman (or a man) sleeping under a viaduct, we seek answers to the never-ending, ever-recurring, questions; "Whose fault could this possibly be?; Is it her own fault; did she self-destruct, did she make dumb choices? Did she do the wrong things? Was her family's fault? Or was it the fault some abusive ex-boyfriend or friend? Should we blame a society that seems to have become oligarchical and plutocratic, where the gap between the very rich and very poor is at an horrific and criminal level? Should we blame the governing bodies, our politicians, capitalism, or the corporations? Or how about the people who blame social service agencies and homeless shelters, don't they just enable and want to keep people in poverty? Or maybe it's just a combination of everything, or should we just blame our all-powerful, all-knowing God?"

You get my drift; we feel we have to blame somebody, because there's nothing, absolutely nothing, about homelessness that is right! Yet, right here in Uptown, homelessness is very real; it's palpable and in our face! We can actually touch it! There's no escaping the poverty that surrounds us, people in my neighborhood need to react; we cannot ignore it and we have to face what's standing right before us all!

All this leads me to my original comment; "it just ain't that simple!", because finding housing for "chronically homeless" people is downright complicated and filled with endless difficulties. Obstacle after obstacle stands in the way. Felonies, misdemeanors, evictions, a lack of income, the color of one's skin, physical disabilities, addictions and mental illnesses are just a few of these obstacles, making someone's journey from "homelessness to housed" seem insurmountable!

It is my dream, or anyone who does outreach work, to be able to just walk up to someone sleeping under a viaduct, living in a homeless shelter or some poor soul snoozing in an abandoned building with a sparkling gold key to a brand new furnished apartment. It is my prayer to see that homeless individual grab that key with delight, pick up his bags full of all of his belongings and memories and wander to the address I'd written on a piece of paper. It is my wish to see that happy joyful soul enter her new apartment, cook herself a home-cooked meal, have a long relaxing shower, settle down on her comfortable couch with a good book and live happily ever after.

It may be my dream, prayer and wish, but it ain't realistic! And let me tell you: it just ain't that simple!

Johnny (not his real name) had been homeless for over 10 years; living in shelters, sleeping countless nights with one eye open on the Red-Line and occasionally crashing on a friend's couch. Even though he'd made countless efforts, Johnny was never able to secure a job, so he'd end up panhandling for some piddly coins. For many years he'd struggled with a bunch of major obstacles that stem from having a depressive disorder, many serious medical issues, being an alcoholic and rejection from his family. Johnny's never been to prison or committed a felony, but his rap sheet looks long and awful, because he's been arrested and landed in jail too many times for drinking beer in public, panhandling, sleeping in uninhabitable places and urinating in alleys.

Johnny was stuck! He didn't know what to do and where to start. He knew he couldn't just walk up to any landlord and say, "I'm homeless; let me live rent-free in your humble abode!", so he whined and begged! Johnny came to me many times, pleading and giving me variations of this sentence; "Jeremy, I'm tired, I need to get off these streets, I need to stop drinking. Please help me! I need your help! Pray for me Jeremy!"

That journey and those words started years ago. As much as I wished I could immediately make his dreams come true, I couldn't. There may be thousands of abandoned or foreclosed buildings in this city, yet none were available for Johnny. How would he pay his rent? How would he get the continued support he needed? How could we get a landlord to accept him with his criminal history and lack of credit? What could I do to help him?

We started the process with the basics; we helped him get his birth certificate and State ID. We helped him connect with good and reliable mental health and substance abuse providers. We urged him to apply for disability benefits, as his medical and mental issues make it virtually impossible for him to find employment; unfortunately receiving SSI often takes repeated efforts and can frustrate people, like Johnny, for years. He is waiting and is still without income. To cap all that off, we put Johnny on every housing list available and continually gave him any leads to the ones he needed to travel to.

To our surprise and celebration, in the middle of last year, Johnny's name came up on one of those lists! He was eligible for the magnificent "100,000 Homes Campaign"; a program that finds the city's most vulnerable chronically homeless individuals and gets them into housing as quick as possible. For the first time in over 10 years, housing was definitely in his foreseeable future. At this point, I wish I could just give him those sparkling new keys, hug and congratulate him, but again, it just ain't that simple!

Even though Johnny had an agency to pay his rent, a program to offer him support and people running around for him, it still took many long tedious months of sleeping in trains and shelters, a few arrests and many landlord rejections before he received that sparkling new key and the first lease he'd ever signed. It took several agencies collaborating and networking together for the sake of this man, it took many case-managers and outreach workers making sure he kept appointments, didn't disappear into Chicago's homeless wilderness and got all the documents he needed. A lot of red-tape needed to be cut, and that also took a lot of patience and perseverance.

The reality is, thousands of chronically homeless folk are living the same story as Johnny, and they are living proof obtaining an apartment ain't that simple, and should never be this difficult!

Last month, when Johnny proudly showed me his precious key, he knew "it just ain't that simple", and he couldn't stop thanking me and all the people that played a part in helping him.

Tonight, as Johnny eats his own meals, sleeps in his own bed and relaxes in front his own TV, he knows his story is a picture of community and love.
Johnny's story, is a story of caring people coming together and going the extra mile for him.
Johnny's story, is a story of caring people not allowing him to be homeless anymore.
Johnny's story, is a story of caring people forgetting his past and pressing toward the future.
Johnny's story, is a story of caring people loving him with a Love that "holds no records of wrongs"
Johnny's story, is a story of caring people who lived out the wonderful truth of the Gospel, the Kingdom of God and the Hope of the Resurrection for him, right here in good old Uptown!

Congratulations Johnny, you did it, and we love you my brother!

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