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Chicago Matters: Inside Housing

A Way Home

Produced by Kathleen Quinn

Is there hope for the homeless and working poor? This program tells how one local not-for-profit organization is transforming lives by offering the homeless more than just a place to live by providing essential supportive services and a crucial sense of community.



There's no single way to explain why some people end up homeless. Sometimes it happens because of things we have done to ourselves, like substance abuse; but often it's the result of forces beyond our control, like mental illness, poverty, or our community's critical lack of affordable housing.

Whatever the cause, thousands of people live in Chicago night and day without a place to call home. That's how 35-year-old Ron Henry lived for nearly a decade. But it's not how he is living today.



Last fall, Ron left the shelter program at the Chicago Christian Industrial League, after obtaining a spot at the Holland, a drug and alcohol-free residence of single room apartments.

Lakefront Single Room Occupancy Corporation, better known as Lakefront SRO, is committed to working with people that much of society gave up on. They are Chicago's largest provider of "supportive housing," a strategy to break the cycle of homelessness. Case workers address the root causes of homelessness and link tenants to services they need, like health care and counseling.

Ron Henry has opened far more than just a door to his own apartment. He has opened the door to the rest of his life. He told us: "I don't know where this road will take me, but it shows that I did something right along the way. Someone trusted me [enough] to give me some keys and say, 'Okay, we feel you'll be the right person for this apartment. For a long time, I didn't have a door to go to. I got some keys now. They belong to me, and this is something that I'll never give up again."

Links of Interest

Lakefront SRO
Lakefront SRO revitalizes vacant and dilapidated single room occupancy buildings or builds them from the ground up and manages them. With over seven SROs that house over 700 tenants, Lakefront continues to grow. Lakefront SRO has on-site social service teams at all locations that work to help the tenants stay off the streets through case management, financial advocacy, counseling, and job training.

Chicago Christian Industrial League
This non-sectarian organization serves poor and homeless men, women, and families from the entire metropolitan area. The "industrial" portion of their name reflects the founding belief that work is a key solution to the restoration of those they serve to productive independence.

Metropolitan Planning Council
The MPC is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group of business and civic leaders committed to serving the public interest through the promotion and implementation of sensible planning and development policies necessary for a world-class Chicago region.

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless
The CCH organizes and advocates to prevent and end homelessness based on their belief that housing is a human right in a just society.

Chicago Department of Human Services
CDHS concentrates on human services most pressing in our city. Drawing upon a network of social service providers in Chicago, they connect individuals and families in need of important resources. From subsidized, quality child care to housing for the homeless, CDHS provides support people need to build healthy, productive lives.

Chicago Rehab Network
CRN is a citywide coalition of neighborhood-based nonprofit housing organizations working to create and preserve affordable housing in Chicago and the region.

On the Way Home: An Encounter
by Kathleen Quinn, program producer of A Way Home

It's amazing how – sometimes – life's best presents don't come on your birthday or on the major holidays. Often, they don't arrive wrapped in colorful, pretty paper. Perhaps it's precisely because they aren't new and shiny, but rough and in disguise that they are some of life's gems.

Saturday, December 29, 2001 was a travel day for me. I'd spent most of the past week shuttling between Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. visiting my sister and her family, my brother and his girlfriend, my parents, and aunts and uncles. They wanted me to extend my trip but I felt the need to return to Chicago and ramp up for the next stage of my latest project, a documentary on the homeless and housing as part of the Chicago Matters: Inside Housing series.

Had I extended my stay, I would have missed out on a profound and indelible experience.

I landed at O'Hare at around 9 p.m., inbound from Pittsburgh on U.S. Airways flight #435. I quickly moved into the familiar pattern of passenger foot traffic, first snaking through the terminal and then down below it, heading for the blue line 'L.' For $1.50, I'd be home in Lincoln Park in about 45 minutes. Because it was a bitterly cold night, I looked forward to something else: slipping into a hot bath. Though I've spent most of my life in the Midwest, I've never learned to truly appreciate winter. As I pulled my blue Samsonite bag through the turnstile, my breath was turning to frost and my hands were already cold.

For traveling over the Christmas holiday, surprisingly, I had just one suitcase and a shoulder briefcase but what I had was overstuffed. I'd received a bounty of thoughtful and beautiful gifts but arranged to have several shipped back to make the trip back via the airlines a bit easier.

I guided my suitcase onto the 'L' and sat down in one set of the twin seats that face each other adjacent to the doors, the ones that passengers are supposed to vacate if disabled passengers are on board. I settled in and pulled out the book I'd been reading on my flight, From Potter's Field by Patricia Cornwell. It's an engaging bit of brain candy and I was within a few chapters of the ending.

The 'L' passengers were airline crew, airport concession workers and security screeners just off their shift, and passengers like me – who just wanted to get out of the cold and get home. Initially, that's who I thought she was. I figured she was coming off an evening flight with her duffel bags of clothes and Christmas presents. Like me, she wasn't just reading a book; she was devouring it.

That was my first glance.

The second time I looked up from the top of my book, I noticed what she was wearing: a white ski jacket, jersey sweat-like pants which matched the stripes in the jacket, a few pairs of white athletic socks layered around the elastic fold of the pants and Nike shoes. It wasn't far off my own comfortable travel attire: all-weather coat, jeans, turtleneck, sweater, baseball hat and Adidas tennis shoes. I returned to my book but after several stops, I realized she was contemplating me as well. We avoided eye contact but we were taking each other in.

I polished off the final chapter of the book and began measuring the 'L' train's progress downtown, and, keeping my head down, was ticking through the list of things I needed to accomplish the next day. But eventually, my eyes were drawn back to her. As I peered up through the tops of my glasses, I noticed some small details: how she chewed her already nubby nails as she intently read, how her hands were smudged with small streaks of dirt and the skin was rough and dry. Then I noticed her cheeks. On a child, I would describe them as cherub-like. On her, a Caucasian woman in her thirties, perhaps early forties, the red, chapped and wind-burned cheeks suggested she spent a lot of time outside. The reality of her situation slowly washed over me; I had the dreadful feeling that it was far more than spending some time outside. I looked again; her bags were tattered, her shoes were dirty, and the green garbage bag tucked beneath the duffels carried possessions, not refuse.

I wondered what her life must be like: a homeless woman, all alone. As I contemplated that, she stopped reading, looked at me and asked, "How's your book? Was it good?" I said it was; I enjoyed a good crime novel. The ice was broken. She had reached out to me. Then, in the same direct yet disarming way, she said, "I'm homeless. Do you know what homeless is?" I said I understood what it was but that I couldn't imagine what it was really like. In spite of all the research I'd done and the many people I'd met in the course of producing a documentary on the homelessness in Chicago, she was the first person I had met who was currently living on the streets. The homeless I had encountered and interviewed had hit bottom and were working their way back. Their journey was inspiring, but in a profound way, this woman opened my eyes.

I asked her if riding the 'L' was her way to stay warm ... if it was a safe haven for her. She said it was. For all of the struggles she may have faced in her life, at that moment, I was the one who struggled ... for a word or a phrase. We sat in silence for a moment, looking at each other. Then she stuck her arm into one of her bags and fished around, searching intently. She yanked out a paperback book and after examining it, handed it to me, "This one's good. You'll like it." I took it, thumbed through it and said, "Looks good," and handed it back. But she smiled and said, "No, I want you to have it. Keep it. Read it and see if you like it. I've already read it."

Just as the realization of her situation had slowly washed over me moments before, now this gift, her gift of humanity, flowed out and over me.

I had assumed she was like me. Thinking about it, I now realize that, perhaps for some luck and good fortunes that I've had, she is exactly like me. We were both searching for a connection, for a sense of understanding, for a sense of belonging.

Ironically, what I got on the 'L' that night is exactly what television producers dream their programs will give--an experience that goes beyond stereotypes into the humanity of others.

That woman with so little gave me so much – a book and an insight that deserves to be read, pondered and shared.

Other Series
View information from current and past Chicago Matters series:

Chicago Matters: Our Next Generation

Chicago Matters: Money Talks

Chicago Matters: Valuing Education

Chicago Matters: Beyond Borders

Chicago Matters: Growing Forward

       
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