When the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America began a program to create a half-way house for runaway underage children, they looked in various Chicago neighborhoods to find a suitable structure. This was in the mid-70’s. Their idea was to create a safe haven where these children could find shelter and have some semblance of security.
Many of these kids had run away from abusive family environments. Others were emotionally confused, unable to cope and chose a life away from home as an escape. Most sold themselves for sexual favors as a way to support themselves – and others found themselves the victims of sexual predators.
As you probably know Chicago is a city of neighborhoods. If your background is Polish or black or Italian or Irish or Hispanic, there are one or more neighborhoods where you probably live with other people who share your ethnicity. People jealously guarded their invisible borders and did not welcome the intrusion of “outsiders”.
I happened to live in one of the most socially-liberal communities not only in Chicago but probably anywhere in the country. Not surprisingly, when word of this project spread among my neighbors there was a huge groundswell of support that rose from them.
Well, the Church tried neighborhood after neighborhood to locate their half-way house only to meet with community resistance and rebuke. The people of these neighborhoods simply didn’t want these outsiders living among them. In order to establish a half-way house a change in zoning was required. If an alderman in a particular ward opposed giving a variance, that essentially ended the matter. And the neighborhood residents had their aldermen’s ears.
Then the Church had its Eureka moment. Like Saul on the road to Emmaus suddenly they saw the light. Why were they beating a dead horse when there was a very obvious solution to the problem? They would locate their half-way house in a neighborhood where, from the inception of this project, they had received the full support of the community. They would bring it to my neighborhood.
To paraphrase the popular song, “What a difference a neighborhood makes.” What had been active community support when the project was to be located elsewhere, suddenly met the exact same opposition when it was proposed that it be placed within our hallowed borders. The project never came to fruition.
The purpose of this post is not to indict “phony morality” or point fingers at anyone. That is neither my right nor is it a responsibility I want to accept. I’ll leave that to a higher power to make those judgments. But recalling this episode gave me an idea which fits my goal of “thinking outside the box” as a way that we might address some of our social and economic issues.
If there is any one thing that we could say about our major cities it is that they all have their populations of people who are homeless. Studies suggest that many of these have mental challenges and that is the reason for their situations. But with the continuing sputtering of the economy and the burst in the housing bubble there are some who used to have a home and have found that the bank foreclosed on them. They have entered the ranks of the people of the street.
Every analysis of the housing market suggests that we have at least a two year inventory of housing available that will have to be absorbed before housing prices stabilize. The banks are holding increasing numbers of non-performing assets (foreclosed homes) on their books. They would love nothing more than to be able to sell those – but there are no buyers for them.
So here’s the idea. The government has spent trillions of taxpayer dollars, trying to get the economy stimulated. The results so far have been less than impressive. So what if the Federal government were to purchase some of these foreclosed homes from the banks and turned them over to a non-profit agency – perhaps Catholic Charities or The Salvation Army. These houses could become shelters for some of the millions of homeless who inhabit our cities.
The Federal government would own the properties – but the ones they purchased would reduce our existing inventory of unsold homes, hastening the recovery in the housing market. The agency or agencies which had charge of these properties would require that all people who accepted residence there exchange their services for the roof over their head. Is this a mere pipedream – or might there be some merit to it?
Yesterday I was out and happened to see a man at an intersection. He was holding a cardboard sign which asked those who passed by to help him with a donation. I pulled into the gas station which was behind where he stood, got out of the car and walked over to him. I asked if he would spare a few minutes of his time. He seemed eager to talk with me.
I explained that I had an idea for helping people who were homeless and asked him if he were indeed one of those. He said that he was. So I asked if , rather than living on the street, he would be willing to live in a house with a number of other men and in exchange for housing do some kind of work for which he was qualified.
The man’s eyes lit up and he said that he was a “handyman” and could fix just about anything. In fact he had supported himself that way for many years but when the housing market turned down, people either put off doing repairs or learned to do them themselves. That’s when his slide into homelessness began. He had been on the streets now for almost two years.
Obviously, this is just the beginning of an idea that is not yet even at the talking stages among those who could make it happen. I felt sad if I had given this man, Andy a sense of false hope. I thanked him for speaking with me, gave him some money and left him on his corner.
If this idea ever gains traction I am going to recommend that Andy be allowed to participate in the program. I know where he works.