Thursday, June 28, 2012

Free People, No Homes

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Who is more blameworthy: the young black kid who hustles on the street corner, selling weed to help his momma pay the rent? Or the college kid who deals drugs out of his dorm room so that he’ll have cash to finance his spring break? (Alexander 216)

In an attempt to better understand our guests, community, and the world, the staff at LPCS has developed a monthly book club. This past month the staff attempted to grasp the significance of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander.

First question on the table was: who managed to finish the book? This New York Times Bestseller is over 200 heavy pages challenging the racism that exists from America’s neighborhood policing up through to the 14th Amendment. While many people considered the election of Barack Obama an end to racism, Alexander proposes that we have not yet entered an era of colorblindness, but rather redistributed racism back into the justice system.

There were many interesting points of conversation that occurred after reading the book. Murray pointed out how, when it comes to drug related crimes, it is interesting that there is no actual victim. No one is actually calling the police to report a crime because both parties involved (the dealer and the purchaser) is willing participants. After the emergence of the War of Drugs, police learned new tactics of finding criminals and then prosecuting them without a crime actually being reported.

Once arrested, few drug related crimes actually go to trial. Some people will remain in jail for a significant amount of time. Others will plead guilty because they will have charges stacked on top of themselves and do not have the resources for a strong lawyer. Odds are rarely in the favor of the person arrested, so a plea bargain is often the only way out.

It is important to always consider how these concepts relate to the guests at LPCS. Alexander pointed out how difficult it is for a person to get a home once they have been arrested for anything, even if it occurred decades ago. A person that felt obligated to plead guilty to a charge from over 15 years ago is often going to find him or herself without a home or job because many places will not take anyone with a record. “Throughout the United States, public housing agencies have adopted exclusionary policies that deny eligibility to applicants even with the most minor criminal backgrounds” (Alexander 145). Job applications will also weed out all of the people that have a background. Even if a person chooses to decline to answer, that often sends a red flag up to the employer or landlord.

So, what can be done to rehabilitate someone who has done their time but is out of options now that they are a free person again? We were not able to come up with any realistic solutions, only frustrations. Can you think of any ways around this system?

Respond with your thoughts and suggestions below -

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Welcome, Meghan Freebeck

Before joining the Lincoln Park Community Shelter, I studied English and History at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. I later attended DePaul University, where I received a Masters Degree in English. Upon completing my Masters Degree, I began work as the Director of Communications for The Shakespeare Project of Chicago, a non-profit theatre that brings the words of William Shakespeare to life with free performances and dramatic readings throughout the city. At the same time, I was teaching English Composition at Harper College and Morton College.
My relationship with the Lincoln Park Community Shelter unofficially began in January, 2012, when I attended an orientation to become a volunteer. I was so eager to be a part of this incredible organization that I checked nearly every volunteer opportunity box. I began by cooking dinners at the Shelter with a group of friends, later I contributed by bringing in sack lunches. The very dedicated Volunteer Coordinator extraordinaire, Elli Krandall, suggested that I use my editing experiences to help guests with their cover letters. I took her recommendation and began coming to the Shelter every other Tuesday to help guests write and edit their cover letters.
During one of these visits, I only had one guest sign up to meet with me and discuss his cover letter. I asked him what it was about his job experiences that he wanted to express or further convey in his cover letter. His answer: “Why I came to be living here today”. This is when it occurred to me that the LPCS did more than just give a rooftop, job assistance, and food to 35 homeless men and women. The LPCS was giving 35 individuals a chance to tell and change their stories. Each person that stays at the LPCS found themselves without homes for vastly different reasons; however, their goals are the same. I realized, then, that I wanted to have a more active role in changing the stories of these men and women. It is for these reasons that I am thrilled to accept the position as the Community Relations Manager at the Lincoln Park Community Shelter.  
 --Meghan Freebeck, Community Relations Manager

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Land of the Lost Souls

There are many reasons I enjoy working at the Lincoln Park Community Shelter, but I think they all stem from one of our founding philosophies: community. A lot of effort is put into creating community between guests, between guests and staff, between guests and volunteers, between staff and volunteers, and between staff. Sometimes this is facilitated very intentionally, through things such as Community Meetings, where all of the guests come together to talk about the shelter and what things they can do or change to help each other through this transitional time in their lives. Other times this is done more organically, through the informal conversations between people in the kitchen or community room throughout the day.

One of the intentional ways in which the staff not only works to build community with themselves, but also works to better their understandings of the guests and their varied situations, is through our staff Book Club. Beginning this year, we have read books focused on alcoholism, suicide, and homelessness.

The last book we read was Land of the Lost Souls: My Life on the Streets, by Cadillac Man, which chronicles some of his time experiencing homelessness in New York City. The book was interesting in almost an infinite number of ways, but there were some things that stood out most, and were a big part of the discussion we had.

One of the main questions we had was about Cadillac Man's transition from being housed to homeless. He tells readers that before "Cadillac Man" started living on the streets, he lived in a home with his wife and daughter. He had a steady job at a meat market, but when things went under, he was eventually let go. His wife started working, and was supporting them both. He believed that his wife was ashamed of him, and thus, he was ashamed of himself. He acknowledges that he could have gotten a part-time or low paying job, such as working at McDonald’s or Burger King, but that he felt it would have been equally shameful.  Eventually he decided he didn’t deserve to stay, and he left. Since the book is written entirely from his perspective, we all wondered what factors other than shame contributed to his leaving. Was he depressed or experiencing some other type of mental health issue? Did his wife want him to leave, or was that just his interpretation of the situation? It is hard to say what really happened.

We also discussed how intelligent and resourceful Cadillac Man is throughout the book. He talks about the ways he stays warm in the winter (by stuffing newspaper and napkins into his clothing, to create insulation), the various first aid items he has (bandages and antiseptic), and how he earns money (through canning – recycling cans and bottles) and keeps it safe.

A big question we had in relation to our work at LPCS was whether or not Cadillac Man would utilize any of the services we offer. In the book he mentions taking sandwiches from an organization outside of a church, and the importance and rarity of showers, so we think that maybe he would attend our Saturday morning Community Engagement Program (CEP), for a hot breakfast, laundry, and a shower. We do not, however, think he would be interested in moving into LPCS and looking for a stable housing solution. A common theme throughout the book is his belief that he deserves to live on the streets and does not deserve a real home. That belief is one of the reasons why we questioned whether or not he was dealing with a mental illness, such as depression.

Overall, we all really enjoyed the book and the opportunity it gave us to understand another person’s situation. No matter how many people you meet or how many stories you learn, each person’s experience with homelessness is different, and the more you hear, the more you understand that. I would definitely suggest this book for anyone looking to gain more perspectives on homelessness and for a new way to engage with the issue.

If you are interested in seeing what other books are on the staff book club list, check out our Cause Reading List board on Pinterest (Note: you do not have to have a Pinterest account to be able to view).

--Elli Krandel, Volunteer Coordinator