The plight of our homeless citizens is always at the forefront of my mind. As a veteran journalist, I have adopted the philosophy that every “body” has a story, and if there is a “body” next to me, I want to get his or her story in hopes of being an agent of social change.
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the plight of the homeless with a particular emphasis on the youth in Austin and other West Side communities. Since then, I have starting asking people I encounter if they know any homeless people. A few said yes; however, most said they do not know any.
To those who say no, I immediately say, “I’m sure you do; you just don’t know it because they seldom self-identify. They work or attend school with you all day and at night, they ride the trains, frequent all-night Laundromats, or sleep in abandoned cars and buildings. The more fortunate ones ‘double up’ on someone’s couch or floor, or pretend they fell asleep at a friend’s house and it was too late to travel home. Some sleep on your front porch after you’ve gone to bed. Some sleep in your backyard on you covered patio furniture or in your cluttered garage.”
To further drive the point home, I add, “In the morning, they freshen up in a public restroom and start the next day like everyone else does.” You might notice they have on the same clothes several days in a row, but you excuse that because everything else appears so normal.
The other day while riding the Green Line back to Austin, I started talking to a well-groomed young woman. I complimented her hairstyle of full bangs and two long cornrow braids. She thanked me and said she didn’t really like the style, but found it easy to manage. We then chatted about the upcoming holidays and the frenzy of gift shopping. Shay (not her real name) said she had two children and that she had started her shopping for them by putting things on layaway. We laughed and exchanged a few more pleasantries, then sat quietly for a few moments. For no apparent reason, I looked at her and asked, “Do you know anyone who is homeless?” She said to me softly, “I’m homeless.”
“Really?” I said, a bit startled and surprised.
“Yes, I live in a shelter on the South Side with my daughter,” she answered. “I am on my way to visit my son who lives with my grandmother in Austin. It’s hard living in the shelter. It’s not that clean, and it’s really not safe. That’s why my son stays with my grandmother. I miss him, so I try to come see him every day.”
Shay, like so many homeless mothers with sons, had to find alternative shelter for her son because in a shelter, sons are not allowed to stay with their mothers. Often, young boys are made to sleep in an all-male quarter with older men. This puts them at risk of sexual abuse and other unthinkable acts.
I asked Shay why she didn’t live with her grandmother, and she replied because there are too many adults there and there is no room.
I explained that I’m writing a series of articles on the plight of the homeless to raise awareness of the problem and to hopefully organize a community effort toward eradicating it. She became reluctant to continue talking with me until I assured her that her identify would not be revealed.
“I want to leave the shelter, she said, “but I’m waiting for Governor Quinn’s affordable housing program to kick in. I am on this list, but if I leave, I will lose my place in line,” she added.
Unfortunately, Shay’s wait could be much longer than she thinks. On March 1, 2013, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) secretary, Shaun Donovan, issued a letter to Gov. Quinn advising him that, because of the sequester cuts, Illinois could “expect reductions totaling approximately $53 million” in the FY 2012 funding level of the Tenant Based Rental Assistance (TBRA) program.
TBRA provides for homeless assistance and affordable housing, community development, and special needs assistance through the Home and Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS (HOPWA).
Nationwide, as a result of these cuts, approximately 125,000 individuals and families, most of whom are elderly or persons with disabilities, could become homeless. Cuts to HOPWA could result in 7,300 fewer low-income households receiving permanent and short-term supportive housing assistance. This includes rent or utility assistance.
This could also result in 100,000 formerly homeless people being removed from their current housing or emergency shelter programs. Veterans, families, and adults with disabilities will be the hardest hit.
Austin and other West Side communities, because of their dense populations, could see devastating effects. The plight of the homeless is alarming, and soon, if something is done at least at the community level, the homeless will not be hiding in plain sight, but forced to comb the streets in search of much-needed assistance.
Homelessness can be eradicated with a consistent committed community effort where we all work to make a difference as agents of social change.