CHICAGO – The reason that I chose to be a community organizing intern at Chicago Coalition for the Homeless is because they organize and advocate to change the “big picture” of homelessness. I believe that in order to truly end homelessness we have to change the systems and institutions that create homelessness and make it very difficult for people to get out once they become homeless.
There is a reason why I believe in this kind of approach. In college I became friends with two homeless men, a father and son whom I came to know as “Big John” and “Little John”. I came alongside them as they tried to get off the street. On a college student’s budget I didn’t have the resources to get them permanently housed, but I did what I could.
On really cold nights, I would help them get a motel room. I would give them rides to make sure they made their appointments with various social services. Eventually, Big John started to receive disability pay and they were able to get a weekly motel room for most of the month. They could never pay for the whole month though, let alone food and transportation, and I would do what I could to help cover those costs.
This went on for two years. While my friends were no longer sleeping in a viaduct like they had been when I met them, they were still a far cry from stable housing. They were constantly on the edge of being back on the street. It was then that I started to see that it was more than a lack of resources that kept them stuck in homelessness.
Their voices and their rights were ignored most of the time. They didn’t know how to navigate the bureaucratic maze that was supposed to give them the help they needed and no one ever seemed to step up and explain it to them.
On top of that, they faced outright discrimination. Once, I lost track of them for two months when they were arrested for panhandling and spent two months in jail.
Then on Christmas Day 2010, both of Little John’s kidneys went into renal failure. He was rushed to an emergency room. Little John had been feeling sick for months, but he didn’t think a doctor would see him because he couldn’t pay. He was put on dialysis, but six months later, at the age of 28, he passed away.
It was only after Little John passed that I came to see homelessness as the systemic injustice that it is.
It wasn’t that Big John and Little John couldn’t catch a break; that break didn’t exist. There were laws, policies and broken institutions which, along with a lack of affordable housing, affordable healthcare, and living wage jobs, kept them stuck where they were. I decided then that I needed to do something about those things, which ultimately led me to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
J.D. Klippenstein, an intern this year with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless Speakers Bureau and its new Education Committee. A Nevada native, Klippenstein is earning a master’s degree in social justice and community development at Loyola University of Chicago.