How to Give Hope & Dignity Back to Homeless People

By Robin Garr (

Here is a truly inspirational article from the US about how a small group of caring people, founded an amazing facility that helped put dignity and hope back into the lives of local homeless people. The last line reads; "This is an exceptionally effective model program, and one that appears highly replicable." That says it all.

Homelessness can affect anyone

Some of the nation's most effective grassroots programs seem to have simply evolved to meet a need without a great deal of effort -- an impression that's doubtful at best. So let's just say that the good people who run this holistic, church-based program for homeless people in North Side Chicago's Edgewater and Uptown neighborhoods make it look easy because they do everything so well.

It all began simply enough, about five years ago, when the demise of general assistance in Illinois contributed to a dramatic increase in the numbers of hungry and homeless people turning up at the doors of First Evangelical Free Church, asking for help. Arloa Sutter, whose husband was then minister, was stricken by their plight but wanted to see the church address the need competently and in an organized way, so rather than merely handing out cash to scam artists and the truly needy alike, she raised money by a direct appeal to the congregation's Christmas mailing list and opened a simple day shelter and soup kitchen in an unused church meeting room.

Before long, the program had the enthusiastic support of parishioners; it spun off as a non-profit organization and began to expand its services toward a holistic, "one-stop shopping" service center focused on individual goals and self-reliance. Up to 30 people a day (hitting the maximum daily during the cold winter months, tapering off a bit in the summer) check in every morning -- they must arrive by 10 a.m. in order to get lunch -- and express a personal goal for the day in writing, working with staff to determine realistic goals and develop plans for achieving them. Everyone's expected to do a little work around the center, establishing the premise that work is rewarded and that taking responsibility is important. The center offers case management, addictions counseling, and job training and placement as well as such basics as breakfast and lunch (and dinner during the winter shelter season), a 30-bed night shelter during cold weather, and a full array of day-center services year-round, including a job phone and mail drop, showers, washer and dryer, a food pantry and clothes closet, and, perhaps most important, a safe, supportive environment where people feel safe and at home. The center also offers an educational component (tutoring for youngsters, mostly, although they hope to resurrect ESL and GED programs currently in abeyance); a new youth program featuring an athletics and stay-in-school program, taught by an experienced athletic coach, for 15 at-risk youngsters; and a face-to-face counseling program for individuals with sexual addictions.

Certainly the most innovative feature, however, is the Breakthrough Cleanstreet Project, a non-profit small business dedicated to getting homeless people back into the workforce by putting them to productive work in a supportive setting.

This program, too, started almost by accident about five years ago, not long after the center opened, Sutter says. Based on the center's principle of requiring at least token work in exchange for food and shelter or emergency cash ("it doesn't enhance people's dignity to give them handouts," Sutter says), staff would sometimes ask men to spend an hour or two picking up litter from surrounding streets and sidewalks as their day's chore. It didn't take long for the president of the neighborhood Chamber of Commerce, Jan Baxter, to notice this. Excited about the possibility of improving the community and putting homeless people to work, she offered to contract with Breakthrough to clean up on a regular basis. The Chamber urged all the local merchants to contribute $22 per month toward the cleanup effort, and about 40 percent complied. Before long, another neighborhood -- the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce on Argyle Street -- joined in; then a local bank signed a contract to clean its property, and a nursing home did the same for five buildings.

The income is about $1,500 a month, enough to support a half-dozen workers, who typically put in 3 or 4 hours a day at $6 an hour -- hardly a get-rich wage, but enough to cover the cost of decent housing and get them off the street, while at the same time giving them a sense of worth, a current employment line on their resumes, and a little rough-and-ready training in workplace responsibility, showing up on time and getting a job done. As the program has emerged, it has also added a job-training component, under the supervision of Robert Cornelius, who oversees a four-month training curriculum covering janitorial and housekeeping skills, a semi-skilled job field with a heavy demand for workers in the Chicago area. About a dozen workers are in the Cleanstreets or janitorial-training program at any time; Cornelius says they've found jobs for 50 people since the training program began in February.

Breakthrough's annual budget of $400,000, of which about half comes from individual donors, supports a staff of 14. The Cleanstreets program's $20,597 income last year was sufficient to offset just about three-fourths of the program's $27,642 cost -- an impressive record given that the purpose of the program isn't to make money but to restore lives.

This is an exceptionally effective model program, and one that appears highly replicable.

Robin Garr has written many other fine articles on grass root organisations that have sprung up to answer needs in various communities. To see more of Robin's articles please click the following link:

For other articles about helping the Homeless see also:

For the Benefit of All My Brothers & Sisters Who are Homeless at Christmas, London, 25 December 2001

Source: Robin Garr

© One World One People, 24 January 2002
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