Ending homelessness as we know it

I spent much of the 1980s working at a community center here in Chicago where we dealt with homelessness on a regular basis. After that job, I was awarded a community service fellowship from the Chicago Community Trust. I studied women in Latin America and how they organized in poverty. There I realized that homelessness is a completely different reality in the U.S. than it is in other countries. The material poverty in Latin America was certainly deeper and greater than our poverty, but practically everyone there has a home. It may be a shack or it may be a corner of a family's very poor house, but everybody has some place. That's not true in this country.

When the position as the head of Deborah's Place became open, my mother asked me to apply for it. My mom was one of a group of women who founded Deborah's Place in the 1980s. She lives in Chicago on Michigan Avenue, the Magnificent Mile, and she would see women on the streets all the time. She had run into other women who had noticed the same thing, and they decided to do something about it. They started Deborah's Place with nothing, and now it serves thousands of women a year.

They had been told that the one niche among the homeless that wasn't being filled was serving the woman who was alone. It can be really difficult for a woman who has had her children taken away from her to be in a shelter with women who still have their children. So the single woman was the population Deborah's Place set out to serve, and it has stayed true to that mission all the way through.

You were part of the team that recently wrote Chicago's plan to end homelessness in 10 years. That seems a little utopian. Why did you get involved in that project?
Because I don't think homelessness is acceptable. I think we have just gotten into the habit of accepting it. We don't think it's good, but we say, "Well, there will always be people who are homeless." I think we need to change the way we think about it.

Is ending homelessness realistic?
When we were writing the plan, we asked ourselves that question for weeks on end. The way I see it, reality is formed by the way we imagine things and the way we talk about things. That's why it's important to talk about an end to homelessness. If we continually say, "It'll always be there," we'll never get rid of it.

Talking about an end to homelessness gives me hope. That's why I do it.

Is Chicago the only city with such a plan?
We're the biggest urban center with a plan that's been endorsed by its mayor. Indianapolis and Philadelphia and Maine also have plans. And now the federal government is holding us up as a model, which is somewhat frightening because we certainly aren't "there" yet. You hate to be called a model until you know what you're doing.

But I think the best way I can describe the plan is to use an analogy envisioned by the National Alliance to End Homelessness: Pretend homelessness is a house with too many people in it. First, we've got to close the front door of homelessness so that no more people come in. That means we have to do prevention. Then we have to open the back door of the house and help the people who are homeless get out: that means attending to jobs and affordable housing and health care and systems like that. And also we have to support the people while they're in the house, so that they can become whole again and move out.

You started with prevention. How do you prevent homelessness, exactly?
If I'm in danger of becoming homeless, I will have a city hotline that will work when I call it. I'll be told where I can go to get a voucher for a hotel or for some kind of shelter. Any interim housing would be 24-hour housing, not an overnight shelter where I am forced to leave in the morning. It would be a place for me to live while I figure out how to get into long-term housing again. I will have access to a team of people who will know some ways to help me do that.

We are starting to work with hospitals so that people are not discharged into homelessness. And our next goal is to work with the penal system because another source of growing homelessness is young men coming out of prison.

I can see someone saying, "Why should we provide free housing to people?
No one ever did that for me."The goal is not to get people into free housing. The goal is to get people into housing they pay for. But that also means helping them to achieve economic security and giving them some support along the way.

Didn't our recent epidemic of homelessness begin in the 1980s?
What caused it?It was partly caused by the destruction of single-room occupancy hotels in our cities. Although they were crowded, they did serve single people needing low-cost housing. Also in the 1980s, we weren't putting federal money into affordable housing, and we were minimizing welfare. Welfare payments never went up with the cost of living or inflation. Our government spent billions on the military, so our social spending suffered.

We also saw our mental health system being deinstitutionalized. Overall that's good, but if you don't have a place in the community where people suffering from mental illness can go to live with some support, you end up with more people who are homeless.

Is it true that the majority of the homeless are mentally ill?
That is one of the myths about homelessness. According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the leading cause of homelessness is the lack of affordable housing.

Is the U.S. making any headway on the affordable housing front?
Well, the Conference of Mayors also reports that requests for shelter increased by 36 percent between 2001 and 2002. Our requests at Deborah's Place actually doubled during those years.

On the other hand, the country is seeing a growing movement for affordable housing, or "balanced development" as it is often called. What's being built now is just a drop in the bucket, but at least it's a start.

The Chicago plan sounds as if it will mean the end of the "homeless shelter" as we know it.
Emergency shelters provide basic food and a safe place to sleep—at least that's the hope. But they don't do enough for people, and they tend to perpetuate homelessness. People can survive there, but not well. Many people don't want to go to shelters, because they don't want to be in a regimented program, or because they feel unsafe.

What we'd like to see is enough housing that we don't need emergency shelters. The plan says it's better for people to be in housing, and that it's better to be surrounded by assistance than to be in a shelter where I have to figure out where to go the next night. That will happen only if there are enough housing options that people can afford and legitimately choose.

Doesn't Deborah's Place include an overnight shelter as well as more long-term options? What will the new plan mean for your shelter?Right now Deborah's Place offers what I call a "continuum of opportunity." We have an overnight shelter for 30 women, which is open just 12 hours a day. We offer a daytime program open to anyone; many women from our shelter go there each day. We have a four-month program, and we also have opened 129 apartments that offer supportive housing. We also have learning centers that offer education and employment readiness.

This summer we will drop our overnight shelter, which is a bit scary. Instead we will offer a program for a smaller number of women, some of whom have been with us for a long time, and all of whom are mentally ill. It's considered permanent housing, called Safe Haven. It's free housing, with very low expectations on the women.

These are women who in a previous time might have been institutionalized. Many of them don't want to be institutionalized for the same reasons they don't want to go to shelters: They want their freedom, and they don't want to be sedated, to be a zombie. Even though life may be painful and chaotic, they want to feel.

How much success have you had in moving the women of Deborah's Place out of homelessness?
When we started our four-month program some years ago, I thought that women who had been in the overnight shelter would move into that program. While some of them eventually did, it's been much more gradual than I thought it would be. One of them who moved, for example, left because it was too lonely for her. The program offered housing that was not communal, and she was used to being with other people, so that didn't work out.

You see, Deborah's Place deals with a population that hardly anybody else has been able to assist. We take women who have been through other shelters and have gotten kicked out. At this point we're not excluding anyone.

My concept that women would move from shelters into more permanent housing will work for some populations, particularly for women who still have their children with them. Even if they are substance abusers or coming out of jail, having children to care for helps them look to the future and feel they can make a difference.

Isn't it frustrating to see people remain chronically homeless?
Our philosophy has always been to respect people where they are and to walk with them as they make choices. We know that if we force choices on them, especially on people who are long-term homeless and who are so wounded, it won't last. They have to make the choices themselves. That's a rule of thumb for all human beings. It makes it hard to design programs, but we just keep trying to respect the women and their choices.

Sometimes you hear people blaming the victims of homelessness. They say, "It's really the person's responsibility to make good choices." That's true. But it's society's responsibility to give everybody enough options to choose from. When you're homeless, you don't have much choice about anything.

We do a lot with the humanities in our learning center, and we emphasize decision making and learning about choices through literature. We try to help the women learn how other people make choices because we all have our own ways of making choices and we need to learn that there are different ways.

Do you think some people are homeless by choice?
I don't think people have enough valid options to choose from. I suppose there may be some people who are wanderers by nature, but I truly don't believe there are very many people who want to be homeless. I think there are people who don't want to be in shelters because shelters aren't safe, aren't home, or aren't available.

The last thing people want to give up is their freedom. You do hear some people who live on the streets who say, "I'd rather be here." But that doesn't translate into "I want to be homeless." It usually means, "There aren't options, so this is the option I'd rather have because I'd rather be free."

When we say that people who are homeless are choosing to be homeless, I also suspect it's a way for us to rationalize that homelessness is OK.

How should people respond to homeless people who beg on the streets?
I think people should not respond out of guilt, even though as Catholics we're so good at that. It's important to treat people as human beings. Even if we don't give them money, at least greet them and look them in the eye. That's hard because then you feel caught, and they know that, too.

One woman with seven kids tells the story of how she had been on drugs and finally went to Catholic Charities to get some help. They were at lunch and told her to come back in an hour. So she went and crouched against the wall outside, crying. Later she said, "For the whole hour, nobody ever said hello to me or asked me if I was OK. That's the worst thing about being homeless: Nobody even recognizes that you're a person. They just walk right by you."

So even if we don't give, let's at least acknowledge people. Sure, you can get taken—people are smart, and they're trying to survive. If you don't want to give money, you can say, "I'm going in to get some lunch. Can I get you a sandwich?"

Also don't forget that in the Catholic tradition, the stranger is often God. Often today, because we're afraid of violence, we're blocked from that reality.

What can the average Catholic do to help homeless people?
We only act on what we're passionate about, and we're only passionate about what touches us personally. The most important thing is for people to get involved in some way with people who are homeless, so they begin to understand and get to know them.

It's important to do more than just give food or money. You have to sit down and eat with people who are homeless. When I was first going to a soup kitchen, I found it much easier to stand behind the soup pot than to actually talk with the people. It takes more out of us, and it's scary.

At Deborah's Place we build on relationships, and we encourage our volunteers to get to know the women. That's what changes people's lives.

One of our women who was a long-term resident died last year. She had no family and had been on the streets for a long time, in and out of our shelter. The people around her when she died were three of our volunteers and one of our former staff members. When you really get to know a person who is homeless and come to like her, it's life-changing.

Giving money to groups that work with people who are homeless is important, and so is talking about homelessness, so people know that you think it's an important issue.

What can parishes do?
Many parishes are caring for people who are homeless through offering shelters, but what we need is for parishes to put their resources into low-income housing, as some parishes and religious orders such as the Franciscans and the Claretians are already doing.

One of our Benedictine Sisters is working with a church-sponsored group out in Colorado that invites people to rent out their property to the organization, who will then rent it out to families in need of transitional housing. The rent will come through subsidies. This is a very clever way to provide housing, I think, because the property owner is going to get the rent one way or the other, and it provides for families in need.

We could do so much more, though. The Catholic Church owns so much property. When Deborah's Place was looking at sites for our buildings, I toured all of these abandoned convents, schools, and churches with pigeons flying in and out. And I thought, "Why won't you just give it to us?" This seems like a call of the gospel.

So I think that's a real challenge for our church: to see our property as a means to address the need for affordable housing and thereby help alleviate homelessness. Instead, we're hanging onto it in case the neighborhoods change and the schools can be reopened.

It sounds like you're urging Catholics to move beyond charity.
It's not either/or. If people are really in need, we must respond to that. But I think without the bigger analysis and some action to solve this, our charity can just assuage our guilt.

It also might help for us to reflect on what having a home means to each of us. Homelessness is more than just being on the street. It means not having a centered place where you can really be yourself, which is often how we define home.

Home is where I can kick off my shoes and let my hair down and be angry if I feel angry and cry if I feel like crying. If we understood what it would mean to lose that, we might get somewhere.

What can the homeless teach the rest of us?
I'm continually amazed at the survival and resiliency of the human spirit in women who have been homeless. I often think, what would my spirit be like if I didn't have a bed to sleep in or a bathroom that's private or clean clothes or options of what to eat? I don't know how I'd feel about life. The women I know show tremendous courage to keep going.

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