An Irksome Reality!

Here's something that irks me!
Something that drives me nuts!

I know a fella who was homeless for an incredible 40 years!
I know another fella who was homeless for 30 years..... and what's more, this man is a quiet and humble Vietnam Veteran! 
I also know plenty of men and women who've experienced homelessness for well over 10 long tedious years! 

These numbers are very hard to comprehend; especially for those of us who enjoy the warmth and comfort of our own homes....

The thing that irks me can be summed up with this sentence: after all these years of homelessness, a few diligent outreach workers and caseworkers on the "front lines" created possibilities for many individuals to be accepted into housing programs and then qualify to move into permanent housing, yet as they move toward the light at the end of the tunnel, a bureaucratic nightmare blackens their horizon, inevitably delaying or even preventing their dreams from becoming reality! 

To phrase this another way: As workers on the "street-level" create hope, there's a "system" that undermines that hope, by instilling hopelessness and despair into their reality.

For those of us who live in homes, surrounded by a strong network of support and have never experienced the trauma of homelessness, what I'm about to illustrate is very hard for us to comprehend. When the woes of homelessness seem to be an impossibility, it's our natural tendency to blame continued or sustained homelessness on the person experiencing homelessness. I'm not referring to someone or a family falling into homelessness, but rather, I'm referring to the thousands of people trying to escape from the chains and shackles of being homeless. Once somebody enters the dark tunnel of homelessness, they quickly discover an ever-present and daunting reality; finding permanent housing is never simple for folk who have been shackled by the harsh chains of poverty, prejudice and marginalization. 

We live in a society that is downright callous, complex and complicated. Eradicating poverty and homelessness has not been on the political agenda in America for decades, in fact, people living at the bottom have been ignored by both political parties. Society is callous, by creating countless loopholes for the "super rich", while erecting barriers and obstacles for poverty-stricken folk! Trying to navigate through this complex and complicated system is never simple, making it "virtually impossible" for someone (on their own) to actually escape from the tight chains and the residual affects of poverty! 

The "pulling oneself up by one's bootstraps" analogy is nothing but a hopeful illusion when it comes to someone experiencing homelessness! This phrase is simply and plainly propaganda! The question must be asked: How can a person pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they don't own any boots? 

This is where we must come in: 
We must instill hope into this negative scenario! 
We must enter this world and offer resurrection hope into all the hopelessness and despair!
We must hold their hands and walk through the valleys with them, so we can climb mountains together to view the sun rise! 

As I reflect on the narratives of the individuals mentioned above, it is my pleasure to announce that these 2 men are both successfully housed. Johnny, who'd been homeless for an enormous 40 years, proudly came into my office today, dangling his keys and proclaiming he still has his crib! He also proudly showed me his new State ID, with his own address on it! After "showing off" his accomplishments, he asked me to help him with a few more necessities, and we proceeded to "take care of business!"  

Johnny's story is extremely complicated and hard to summarize; and I would add, explaining why he took so long to escape his homeless cycle is even more difficult! There are so many complex issues, but a major one for him is his absolute inability to read or write, making him incapable of comprehending the simplest and most basic directions. We see even more of the complexity in Johnny's narrative when we group this learning disability with the early and untimely death of his parents, his head injuries and multiple scars from being attacked a few times, his alcoholism, his felonies and misdemeanors, his frequent hospitalizations and his lack of income! 

When I reflect on Johnny's long and tedious path from homelessness to housed, I can testify that he needed outreach workers, case-managers, clergy and friends networking and collaborating together to bring about his successful move! He couldn't have done it on his own; it took a lot of love, patience and perseverance of a dedicated few (including Johnny himself) to make his dreams become reality! 

Let me try and explain.....

Johnny's name had been submitted a few years ago for housing opportunities. When his name "came up" a couple years ago, he was denied because of bureaucratic technicalities. His name "came up" again a year later by another agency, but because of the difficulties and time-frame of him obtaining his State ID, his dreams were squashed again. We were doing everything we could, as quick as we could, but when you're starting with nothing, obtaining certain documents can be an absolute bureaucratic nightmare and you're traveling at their pace!

Providing a man with this kind of hope, only to say later on; "sorry, you now don't qualify" is heart-breaking and gut-wrenching to someone experiencing homelessness.... but Johnny displayed remarkable courage and patience, somehow he managed to keep his head held high and he didn't let hope die!

He was left waiting again, quickly approaching his 40th year of homelessness and one of Chicago's coldest winter's ever. But Johnny's story did not end on the Uptown streets, his story continued.....

A few of us had lived through his bureaucratic nightmares with him, often getting more frustrated than him. Through it all, we continued to fight for him, take him to appointments and get those important documents in place. We didn't want his dreams to die, we wanted them to become reality. It was a collaborated effort of numerous people from a few different places, playing different roles for the sake of this one chronically homeless fella. We were "loving" Johnny and making sure he wasn't ignored or forgotten.

Eventually, in the early months of 2014, Johnny successfully moved into his own apartment, where he happily remains to this day!

The Vietnam Veteran I mentioned above, who was homeless for a staggering 30 years, shares a similar story of living through multiple bureaucratic nightmares. Thomas' journey included conflicts between the Veteran's Administration and Social Security over what income he is entitled to receive. As they disputed, he remained homeless and without income for years! His journey also included other conflicts between federal programs over his housing voucher (HUD VASH). There were so many complex and complicated factors involved with Thomas' story, that it's easy to see why far too many veterans remain homeless today.

All this to say, Thomas, (with all his disabilities and social anxiety), would have been incapable of cutting through all the "red-tape" on his own; he needed help and he got it! Many people on the "front-lines" fought on behalf of Thomas, making this invisible man, visible! One case-manager (Andre) made countless phone-calls and trips to the VA on his behalf, ensuring this quiet and humble Vietnam Veteran would not be ignored or forgotten. 

I'm happy to announce, Thomas wasn't ignored and forgotten when he arrived in Uptown a couple years ago! People came together for him, and today he receives an income from the VA and remains peacefully housed in his own crib.

Johnny and Thomas are just two examples of the thousands of homeless men, women and children who are trying to navigate through a very callous, complex and complicated system. People experiencing homelessness need other folk. In all our different capacities, whether small or big, whether dynamic or mundane, we need to assist and help each other arrive at our ultimate goals. We need community and we all need each other, so our weak and fragile community members won't be pushed down and out by the callous "powers-that-be". 

We need to be saturated by a Love that is willing to sacrifice for the "least-of-these"....

....and dare I say it, that Love was perfectly demonstrated and lived out by Jesus, the One who stated, "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45)
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