Homeless to Housed! it's a complicated journey...

Cornerstone Community Outreach is a homeless shelter, and it is a very eclectic, busy, hectic and chaotic place! It is raw and we live in the trenches; but we aim to be a place where the disenfranchised, lonely, rejected, forgotten and those who've lost hope will find acceptance, friendship, hope, love and a home with us! 

We have a number of different facilities and programs, where we serve just about every population in modern-day America. It doesn't matter what race, gender, age or sexual preference someone is, we'll take them in, give them a bed, and without bias, we'll offer whatever services we can.

This wide range of folks often includes well over 500 people, who we house, feed and outreach daily. In our cafeteria, all these programs meet and we see hundreds of people come together for nutritious meals, and this is where we see all the eclectic beauty of CCO and Uptown. 

By gazing over the cafeteria, we see a newly homeless single father with his 2 young kids sitting next to a Vietnam veteran who sleeps under a local viaduct and has been homeless for over a decade. On the next table, we see a young Hispanic mother and her 5 children sitting next to a few Congolese men and women speaking French, who had to flee political persecution. As our eyes drift further, we see a lady pushing 80 quietly eating and sitting next to a young couple with their newborn baby, causing us to wonder; "what happened and why?". As our eyes shift from table to table, we see so much eclecticism, and there's no escaping this reality: each table tells it's own unique and gut-wrenching stories of pain, miracles, terror, bravery, compassion and love. 

This wonderful eclectic group, who are united by homelessness and poverty, are assisted in a variety of ways; whether it's jobs, benefits, treatment, NLOB mats, food or something else, our ultimate goal is to help people move out of homelessness and into permanent housing. Our goal is to assist people move toward self-sufficiency. 

Over the past few years, we've played a big part in helping many homeless and chronically homeless people achieve this ultimate goal. They have successfully moved from being homeless to now living in their own apartments. In my personal opinion; this success has been remarkable. This movement has been astonishing, because every person or family experiencing homelessness is different and have their own struggles, personalities, obstacles and goals. We cannot, should not and do not treat everybody exactly the same way.....
  • I'm talking about many men and women who've been existing on the streets and in shelters for over a decade or even decades. 
  • Many of these people struggle with debilitating mental illnesses, devastating addictive personalities, criminal histories, cognitive concerns and major health issues.
  • These men and women often face insurmountable obstacles, making their journeys seem impossible. 
I want to dwell on how we, at Cornerstone, help people successfully move into their own cribs. Whereas no one should be experiencing homelessness in such a wealthy country, I consider these moves "Modern Day miracles". I want to illustrate how we aim to assist people achieve their goals in 5 different ways...

1: We Aim to Treat Everyone Equally, BUT Differently!

I have worked on the front lines for well over a decade and have seen numerous successes, while also observing many failures. While it is essential not to show bias toward certain individuals or to discriminate against others, it is equally important to treat each person we encounter as unique individuals. Every person and family should not be labeled or put into a box, we aim to treat each and every person as the unique individual God created them as! 

I've come to embrace and cling onto 2 catchphrases that do not degrade people! These 2 words are "Housing First" and "Harm Reduction"! I wholeheartedly agree with what these 2 terms stand for; they view everybody as unique, created and loved by God, and possessing an indelible right to be housed and not discriminated against. These catchphrases also respect each individual's dignity, personality, struggles and dreams, while working hard to provide them with a permanent home. The "Housing First" model reverses the usual trend of making sure someone sorts out all their issues before they get an apartment. It takes very vulnerable people off the street and helps place them into their own homes. The "Harm Reduction" model does not call for instant perfection or complete abstinence, but helps individuals reduce the harm they are doing to themselves, others and society. When these 2 models work hand-in-hand, everyone benefits!

2: We Aim to Utilize Efficient and Reliable Tools.

In this line of work, it didn't take me long to discover, technology can either be a wonderful blessing or a wretched curse. Even though we live in this age of instant knowledge, gratification and results, the Internet and smart phones can either take you away, or draw you closer, to the very people we're supposed to be engaging. There are certain computer programs that are mandated by the "powers-that-be", so we have to work out how they won't occupy too much time, control us, lead us in pointless directions or invade people's privacy. We have aimed to work out which technological devices and databases are the most efficient for us and we use them well. It is essential to utilize the technology that creates opportunities for vulnerable people in a quick and workable manner.

Let me give you an example of this process works; Kevin was sleeping outside, I'd given him a NLOB mat and a few other essentials to make an uncomfortable life a little more comfortable. Even though Kevin needed the socks and blankets we gave him, what he really needed was a place to call his own. One day he was standing in front of McDonald's, so I pulled out my iPad, went to a specific and filled out a questionnaire that put him onto a very efficient housing list. A couple other homeless fellas surrounded me and I placed them onto the list as well. The very next day, I received a phone call from a housing locator who was going to help Kevin find an apartment. Using this technological tool not only helped Kevin, it also helped one of the other guys I interviewed too! Today, another veteran is happily housed in his own crib through using these tools! 

3: We Aim to Use Successful and Reliable Resources.

Within the chronically homeless population, stagnation happens because people don't know how to navigate through the complicated maze and cut down all the red tape. Rising out of homelessness is extremely frustrating and hard, so to help people successfully move forward, it is essential to know what to do, where to go and how to make that happen. What is often just minor nuisances for the middle and upper classes, are major challenges for homeless folk. Our job, as caseworkers, is to assist our participants in overcoming these obstacles; it may be finding a mere $15.00 for a birth certificate, giving someone a transit card to get to an appointment, purchasing a pair of steel toe boots for a new job or guiding someone to the right program that will meet their needs. If people are unable to make these things happen, those in need remain stagnant and accomplish very little.

Far too many people come through our doors lacking their basic necessities. A large percentage of those who come to us are without identification, and unfortunately, they often do not have the knowledge or finances to get a new one! This isn't about a lack of willpower in the homeless community, but rather, it's about poverty stricken people trying to navigate through a very complicated and costly system. I've known some chronically homeless people who have lived without these vital documents for decades, making them ineligible for countless opportunities. I am not exaggerating, every year we help hundreds of people obtain their birth certificates and IDs. Without these 2 documents, moving forward is virtually impossible. 

4: We Aim to Network with Faithful and Reliable People.

Another essential tool for successful movement is to actively build relationships with workers from all over the city. No one person or agency can do it all on their own! We all need each other! It is important to know which organizations have proven themselves to people experiencing homelessness, but even more importantly, it is essential to network and collaborate with faithful and reliable people operating on the "front lines". We must choose wisely who to trust and how to work together; I'm speaking about building relationships with people who are like-minded, hard working and have the same passion. It is vitally important to network together with people who deeply love, care and advocate for those marginalized and the "least of these"!

The successful movement we see, could not and would not happen without a few people and agencies coming together for the sake of other people! Outreach workers, case-managers, housing locators and others must all come together and be on the same page. We need them, they need us, and most importantly, our participants need all of us networking and collaborating together! 

We love networking with compassionate ministries like New Life for Old Bags; these wonderful mats that NLOB makes, not only give people sleeping outside more comfort, they help bridge gaps and open doors for new opportunities. When we hand them out, everyone is thankful; it builds trust and then we can move onto helping them with their individual needs. This bridge leads to us to working together with agencies like Heartland Alliance, and this collaboration and networking has ended up with hundreds of homeless individuals and families being assisted with both their housing and health.

5: We Aim to Form Trusting and Respectful Relationships. 

I believe this reason is the most important, if we didn't dwell on this one, the first 4 points should all be rendered absolutely worthless. This is the exact reason we do what we do! It is essential to know people experiencing homelessness in deep and meaningful ways. It is essential to stick by and persevere with our homeless friends. We must be willing to travel through their deepest and darkest valleys with them, so we can also climb mountains with them. This goes far beyond just knowing about their plight, endless needs and where to go for help, we must be willing to create and form lasting and loving relationships and walk down their paths with them, so they will grow to love and trust us! 

In other words; if we're trying to help people experiencing homelessness and they don't know or trust us, all our efforts will be futile. "Street people" and "shelter folk" know the difference between those who truly have their best interests at heart and care about them, compared to those who are just aiming for numbers and a paycheck! They know who talks "down" to them and who respects them equally. This is where we need to ask ourselves hard questions like; "are we willing to crouch down on the cold hard pavement next to someone who is chronically homeless?", "are we willing to visit lonely and marginalized people in hospitals and Nursing Homes?" and "are we willing to keep helping and listening to someone with debilitating PTSD who keeps relapsing or getting into trouble?"

Many homeless people have been viciously stomped on for years; trauma has filled their lives in countless and horrifying ways! They've been the unfortunate recipients of too many broken and false promises by the "powers-that-be", therefore it is essential to be known as a reliable and trustworthy face in their landscapes of hostility and despair! Trust in the homeless community never happens overnight, building a positive reputation takes years. We have to remember; we're entering their world. Homeless folk chat among themselves and drift toward those who don't treat them as inferior, but as equals; as people created and loved by God! As we throw away the stereotypes and labels, we gain positive reputations by treating each and every person as unique individuals! Respect and trust is gained, when we show respect and love to those we're serving.

I want to close with a brief story which sums up what I've been saying; of how a few of us came together and helped a guy named Johnny.  

Johnny has lived outside for almost 40 years. He lives with one of the most devastating disabilities in the 21st century; he cannot read! He can write his name, but he cannot read a single word and that's crippling in modern day America. Johnny hardly ever slept in shelters, so for nearly 4 long decades, he's been sleeping in dumpsters, parks, alleyways and on porches.  

I've personally known Johnny for about 15 years. I've seen him both sick and healthy. I've seen him both drunk and sober. I've seen him very angry, but I've seen him laughing. I've had the honor of giving a spot out of the cold when he's been at the point of hypothermia. I've seen him faithfully going to Church for mass nearly every morning. Over the years, we've given him coats, NLOB mats, gloves, hats, socks, food and other necessities. Johnny trusted me, so one day he told me he was tired of living on the streets and begged me to help him get housed. I spoke to fellow outreach workers and we placed him on a specific housing list. 

His name eventually "came up", and by knowing him quite well, we knew where to find him and give him the good news. Due to his inability to read or comprehend simple instructions, his progress wasn't easy. A few of us from different agencies and churches collaborated together, we walked him through the process by utilizing the right resources, ensuring he made it to appointments and filled out the right documents. We helped him get his ID, social security card and birth certificate. I won't go into all the details, but Johnny's journey was very complicated, heightened by the reality that he needed all of us. Many of us came together for him, went with him all over the city and assisted him in different ways.

Together, we provided hope to a man who cannot read. 
Together, we helped someone who was homeless for almost 4 decades! 
Together, we saw a unique individual, someone who's been marginalized and discriminated against for decades, and let him know that he is loved and adored by God and by those who've stood by him! 
Together, we witnessed the Kingdom of God dwelling in our midst, loving the "least of these" and seeing Johnny being a grateful recipient.
Together, we saw Johnny successfully move out of homelessness.

Very recently, in March 2015, I went with Johnny to a housing appointment, where he signed his lease and got his own key to his very own apartment. I am happy to say, Johnny successfully moved and he happily sleeps in his own bed with a roof over his head. 

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