Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Sadly, Elli Must Say Goodbye

How can I possibly sum up an entire year as an AVODAH Fellow working as the Volunteer Coordinator at the Lincoln Park Community Shelter? Is there a way to recap all of the memories, relationships, and learning moments? Instead of trying to put it all together in what would surely be the longest blog post ever, I will simply list a few things that stick out to me:

What I Have Learned

No matter what your own personal situation, you can support someone in need

I learned this from volunteers who, in the middle of their own job searches, took time to give back to the community and help those in greater need. I also learned this from Guests who were incredibly supportive when I was going through transitions in my life.

We can each only do our best and when that isn’t enough, we need to ask for help

I learned this from fellow staff members, who not only made themselves available when I needed help, but came to me when they were in need.

The Guests of LPCS are incredible people who have had a variety of challenges thrown their way. It wasn’t easy for them to come to LPCS for help, and they have made incredible steps just by doing so.

What I Will Remember

Guests coming to me when they needed someone to listen to their stories

Guests coming into my office to let me know that they got a job/apartment or to share whatever good thing happened to them that day

The hundreds of people calling and emailing me each month, wanting to donate their time and resources to those in difficult situations

Joking around with staff, Guests, Grads, and volunteers – this makes you feel like a bigger part of a community

What I Will Take With Me

Hope for the future

There are so many people and organizations working incredibly hard to help those most in need. If we can all help support them in their work, then I think there can be positive changes in the future.

Skills and Knowledge

On a more personal level, my time at LPCS has given me incredible experience that I know could not have been duplicated elsewhere. I am extremely excited about where these new skills will lead me in the future.
I have seen people turn their lives around this year at LPCS. 

I have seen staff giving their all every day. I have seen volunteers giving whatever they can to help people they care about. I feel really fortunate to have been a part of this organization and its community, and I look forward to staying involved for many years to come.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Hello, again

Two years ago this week, I moved to Chicago to begin working at LPCS as my placement through a national volunteer program called Lutheran Volunteer Corps (LVC).  Prior to moving to Chicago, I had been living in Minneapolis, working for a company that treated me well, yet something was missing. I did not feel as though my talents were being utilized and I knew there was something more for me.  As I applied and interviewed for LVC, I desired to fulfill a vocational calling: working toward social justice.  Such a broad idea, yet I felt drawn to LVC’s core practices of social justice, living simply and sustainably, and exploring spirituality while living in an intentional community.  I hoped joining this organization would lead me toward the path of fulfillment I was seeking.  I wanted a job I loved, where I felt valued, continuously learning, and using my skills.  I found all of this at LPCS.

I had no clue how much I would love working for LPCS when I began, and but it was soon clear to me that this place was truly special.  After completing a year as a volunteer with LVC, I signed on for another volunteer year because I truly value the missions of both the Lutheran Volunteer Corps and the Lincoln Park Community Shelter.  LPCS strives to fulfill its mission to bring the community together to empower homeless men and women, and I feel proud to be part of this community.  

As I rounded out my second year here as a member of Lutheran Volunteer Corps, I knew that I needed to find a full time paying job, wanted to stay in Chicago, and, most importantly, I wanted to continue working as a Case Manager at LPCS.  My friends and family can tell how elated I was (and still am!) to be hired as a full time staff member at LPCS.  

As a Case Manager at LPCS, I love the opportunity to walk alongside others on their journey to more fulfilling and stable lives. I provide concrete support as well as emotional support.  I am now working at an organization that continually strives to improve its services and find out what works; this drives my passion to provide the best services possible and improve myself as I go.  People sometimes ask me why I do what I do, as though this work were completely selfless, but the truth is, I gain a lot working here; I have the chance to learn from others’ lives, am blessed to hear other people’s stories, and share joy within this community.  Seeing the Guests, Graduates, and Community Clients work toward finding a fulfilling and sustainable life renews my own zeal to live a meaningful life.

 By: Brianne Spresser

Thursday, August 16, 2012

In Memoriam

While I would much rather share one of the many success stories that we experience at LPCS – tales of redemption, goals achieved, and dignity restored – today I need, instead, to tell the story of Jimmy.

Jimmy stayed at LPCS on and off for many years. He was personable with a wicked sense of humor, and he was fiercely Irish. Jimmy was also deeply troubled by loss in his childhood and alcoholism in adulthood. He drank – a lot. He knew that it wasn’t healthy for him to continue drinking, acknowledging that it had ruined relationships and jobs, but he had an ambivalent relationship with sobriety.

When he came to LPCS he followed most of the rules but was not able to remain sober for more than one or two months at a time. At the time, LPCS was a “dry” shelter – zero tolerance for coming in under the influence. He was asked to leave over and over again. Whenever he got too sick or too tired or just sick of being sick and tired, he came back.

Because of our strict alcohol policies – and those of many other shelters and permanent housing programs at the time – he couldn’t achieve lasting stability and change. He considered us friends, but his true “home” was on the streets. He made his home on the streets for more than a decade after his last departure from LPCS. At a final moment last week, it finally caught up with him.

Last week another former Guest stopped by to let us know that Jimmy had passed away. He was just 55 years old.

The Zero Tolerance policies of the past shut out many of our neediest neighbors from receiving life-saving services. The strange irony of it is obvious now – in order to get into almost any long-term shelter program or permanent housing or even to receive the necessary critical mental health care – you had to become sober first. In order to get sober – a really important foundation in recovery – you needed to complete inpatient treatment. In order to get into inpatient treatment, you had to be on a bender. The system set in place to help people was, in actuality, preventing anyone from getting necessary help.

Alcoholism is widely recognized as a disease – a debilitating and life-threatening one. As such, a new standard of practice has emerged in the last 10 years called Harm Reduction. Harm reduction recognizes the ebb and flow of addiction and recovery, but keeps vital services and stable housing in place despite a person’s setbacks with the disease. Harm reduction considers housing a human right that should not be denied or taken away because of disease. Study after study has shown that a harm reduction approach to housing yields better health outcomes (including reduced drug and alcohol use) and is more cost effective, as it also reduces costly emergency room visits and incarcerations due to substance abuse.

If Jimmy had suffered from diabetes instead of alcoholism, we never would have required that he seek treatment before giving him shelter or housing. If he had subsequently died on the street of his diabetes, there would have been an outrage. Jimmy's death, in my mind, is no different. There is absolutely no reason that an otherwise healthy 55-year-old man should have his life cut so short. I can't justify it with any explanation of policy, resources, or social work practice. I can't believe that we (as a society) could possibly be better off because we refused critical services to someone who was sick.  

Harm reduction is now considered the best practice and is even required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for all new housing programs. LPCS adopted a harm reduction approach in our Interim Housing Community several years ago. Under it, Guests who experience relapse do not automatically lose their place here. Instead of stripping services, we now intensify them when someone is struggling to stay sober. Doesn’t that make more sense?

Harm reduction is a welcomed system to those of us who have always been uncomfortable with the paternalistic zero tolerance policies of the past. This is not to say that individuals do not bear personal responsibility for the choices they make. Yes, “tough love” and “rock bottom” are important concepts to recovery, but so are compassion and second chances.

One consolation is that when Jimmy died, he was not homeless. He was finally able to access affordable, supportive housing a couple of years ago. But the help that Jimmy was finally receiving was too late to undo a lifetime of disease and a decade on the streets. I take comfort in knowing that when the next Guest who has similar struggles as Jimmy arrives at LPCS, we will have a much different approach and, hopefully, a much better outcome.

Erin Ryan,
Executive Director

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Graduate Council joins LPCS Executive Director in Washington

Last month, four members of our Graduate Council and I had the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C. to attend the Annual Conference on Ending Homelessness, sponsored by the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH).

It was a powerful experience in so many ways. LPCS, like many community-based agencies, is working to end homelessness every day, one individual at a time. Because our Guests are in crisis, our work is often myopic. It is difficult to take a step back and see the larger picture – the social and political context in which our programs are operating. As a social worker, I am committed to social justice, and our staff and Guests are also involved in some level of regional or local advocacy work. It is critical to be able to reframe the problem in this way and work on multiple levels to solve it.

Seeing over 1,500 people gathered in Washington, D.C. from all over the nation with the same overarching goal of ending homelessness in our communities was inspiring. We shared ideas, talked about what works and what doesn’t, and heard from our government partners about opportunities and lessons learned. Nan Roman, president of the NAEH, said that over time, the “positive” effects of a crisis – such as innovation and a sense of urgency – begin to wear off. The ultimate message is that we cannot let the residual effects of the recession (high unemployment rates, rising homelessness, and government funding cuts) become the “new status quo.” We need to continue to work with a sense of urgency and continue to innovate. I left the conference with a notebook full of ideas to implement in Chicago and at LPCS.

Regardless, the best part of the trip was seeing the conference – and the Capitol – through Graduates’ eyes. Marnee, Zyg, Inara, and Albert had all visited D.C. before, but none had been on a trip of this sort. We sat in workshops, met with legislators on Capitol Hill, and even had time for some sightseeing (braving the 100 degree temps!). All four stated that, although it was tiring and overwhelming at times, they really enjoyed the conference and came back feeling energized and hopeful for the future:

I am grateful to have gone to the conference. When you are homeless, it’s easy to think that you are isolated and that only a handful of people care. But there are more people who care, more people involved in trying to solve the problem all throughout the country, than I could have imagined. –Zyg

Prior to going to the conference, the only thing I knew about homelessness was how to survive it. I am encouraged to see the number of advocates, service providers, and even legislators who are doing all they can to alleviate the problem. - Albert

Check out the video below for more of their thoughts and reflections on the trip. And a special thank you to the Presbytery of Chicago, Self Development of People Fund, for making this trip possible for our Graduate Council!

Erin Ryan,
Executive Director

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Why I Do What I Do

Whenever I tell people about my job at the Lincoln Park Community Shelter, I get one of two questions. “Have you always wanted to work in non-profit?” and “Don’t you want a job where you can make more money?” I can never answer these questions swiftly, in fact it usually becomes a lengthy conversation about how much I love my job and how there is nothing better than an occasional bartending shift to make ends meet. 

To answer the first question: no, I did not always want to work in non profit. I once envisioned myself writing novels in secluded cabins (Thoreau, anyone?) and researching the great authors of past eras. I have always had a strong passion for Shakespeare, in particular. I did not intend to be poor, however. I would get my PhD in Renaissance Lit and work at an incredible university where they would pay me to travel and read. Sounds great, right? 

After I completed my Masters Degree in English Literature, reality took a nasty bite out of my bank account. I had student loans, rent, bills, and a very old car that kept breaking down. Turns out, moving into a cabin to write the next Walden is more complicated than I had originally thought. I began working in public relations, then taught English at Chicago community colleges, all the while slinging drinks at neighborhood bars. I missed Shakespeare so much that I decided to take a position with The Shakespeare Project of Chicago, a non-profit theater company determined to make people love the original words of Shakespeare, despite what Hollywood has done to the man. 

Still feeling unfulfilled (no published novel yet…) I began volunteering at LPCS. I would visit a few times a month to edit cover letters and cook meals. The feeling that I had every time I left, was the same that I would have when I finished writing a 50+ page essay on the subconscious being in Shakespearean tragedies (yes, my thesis was that drab!) – It was a feeling of accomplishment and success. I was just as proud helping a Guest edit a cover letter, as I was to complete 50 pages worth of essay writing. 

Now that I am a full time staff member at the Lincoln Park Community Shelter, I get to leave every single day with a feeling of accomplishment and success. Even if the most that I can show for the day is completing a blog entry for thousands (eh hem) to read, it is all part of the process to help LPCS end homelessness. 

*In case you still can’t understand why anyone would work in this field, here is a letter that a Graduate of LPCS sent us with a generous donation:

I cannot deny that I wouldn’t be where I am today without the love and practical help that I received from LPCS. Therefore, I give you this grant. I call this a grant because I am going to tell you how to spend it. 

This money is NOT to go towards the clients, but instead it is to go directly to the staff. It is my feeling that a social service worker is not paid very highly. Day after day she helps clients secure affordable housing but perhaps has difficulty paying her own rent. She may doubt that she has chosen the right career. My goal is to reinforce her faith that the work she does is good. But most of all I just want to say thank you.  

This money may not be used for anything other than a staff party or other creative ways to thank the staff of LPCS. The homeless are a glum lot. We are difficult and often do not appreciate the work you do, but the ones who are the hardest to love are the ones who need it the most. 

I have been extremely lucky, and now I have a new life beyond my wildest dreams. Without LPCS, I would surely be dead, back in prison, or wishing I were dead.  

Please, take this money and celebrate yourselves – the work you do and the path you have chosen. Put the kids on lock-down, hire a babysitter, and take yourselves out. You deserve so much more.

I ask you now, how can you ever wonder why I would want to work in non-profit?

Do you have a great story about loving your job? Share it here!

Meghan Freebeck
Community Relations Manager