Down, but not out, in Oak Park

How Housing Forward takes the sting out of a man's homelessness

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

Last Sunday, Michael Johnson, 47, and his fiancé, Cynthia Saack, 45, trekked over to one of the numerous Oak Park churches that, on any given night, serve as temporary shelters affiliated with the nonprofit Housing Forward. 

Each evening, Johnson and Saack put their names into a lottery, hoping to land on one of roughly 60 pads in the shelter. That night, Johnson said, Saack got picked but he didn't. So they both ended up sleeping on chairs under the Harlem Avenue Metra line. 

"If I get in and she don't, then neither one of us get in — and it's vice versa," said Johnson during an interview last Friday outside of the Starbucks at Lake and Euclid in Oak Park, where he often sells StreetWise magazine for $2 each (he gets to keep $1.10 of each one sold along with tips).

Johnson and Saack have been homeless for two years — the result, they say, of a get-rich-quick scam that quickly went bad. A guy Johnson went to school with conned the couple out of their money, luring them to Chicago from Freeport with hopes of cashing in. 

"A week after we got here, we heard nothing from him and haven't heard from him to this day," Johnson said. 

"It's been hard to get a job," he said. "I got a bad background. I've been clean for five years, but before that I had been in prison seven times, been in and out of jail, fought with addiction." 

According to a 2016 report by the Oak Park Homelessness Coalition, an estimated 2,182 people — "including 322 families, 178 veterans, and 129 people living on the street, experienced homelessness last year in west suburban Cook County." 

Many of them, like Johnson and Saack, must struggle on multiple fronts — from the complicated ground game of securing a safe, warm place to sleep at night to the aerial focus on longer term priorities, like getting back to the normality of waking up in their own bed or going to a full-time job.

To help navigate this world of daily and nightly uncertainty, the homeless in Oak Park often rely on Housing Forward's two full-time outreach coordinators. 

Ebony Martin, 39, is assigned to the Oak Park area.  

A typical day for her starts at the Oak Park Public Library, where the majority of those who are homeless in Oak Park hang out, especially during the winter. 

"When it's cold, I'll go to Dunkin Donuts and get the big things of coffee," Martin said. "I could start the day as early as 7 a.m. and end at around 5 p.m. Sometimes I'm working weekends. It depends on the needs." 

When Johnson or his buddy, Stefan Capzia, 64, need blankets or hygiene products or some food, Martin is a cellphone call away. She often keeps things in her vehicle. 

"If someone calls my work phone and says they need a sleeping bag, for instance, I'm there," Martin said.

The outreach workers also refer their clients to Housing Forward's range of resources and services, such as a support center in Maywood — where clients can shower, eat, wash clothes, use computers, check mail or see a nurse, among other functions.

Another program, launched by Housing Forward in August, seeks to place people who meet the federal government's definition of chronic homeless and who are recipients of CountyCare — the Medicaid-managed health care plan for poor and low-income individuals — into permanent housing administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. 

Martin's function would be described as something of a guardian angel if she didn't so naturally eschew that title. As the outreach worker interacted with Johnson last Friday, a passerby would've thought the two were simply old friends. 

Holly Rotman-Zaid, Housing Forward's outreach and engagement manager, said that one of the best ways people can help people experiencing homelessness is by having some humility — don't try to be a hero, don't attach strings and conditions to your assistance, don't look at them any differently because of their homelessness and don't define them by a transient condition, she said. 

"People are not homeless," Rotman-Zaid said. "We shouldn't call them that." 

This year has been particularly challenging — both for Housing Forward and for its clients. In September, the building that houses the nonprofit's headquarters and daytime support center in Maywood were relocated to Oak Park after a fire broke out in the attic, where the outreach workers' inventory of key items like blankets and clothes were stored, according to Rotman-Zaid,  

Johnson also said that this year there's been an uptick in the number of single mothers utilizing the shelters. Families are given priority in the nightly lottery for pads, so fewer spots remain for people like Johnson and Saack — making their nightly expeditions for shelter that much tougher to navigate.   

"We're getting a lot of people who are coming into shelters because of evictions," said Rotman-Zaid. "Last week, I saw a guy who had a bike with a cart behind it that held everything that he had left from his apartment. He had been evicted. He'd never been evicted before but he lost his job, used all his savings, and hadn't gotten a new job. 

"All he had left were mementos, but where is going to stash that. He couldn't come into the shelter, because he couldn't leave his stuff outside." 

Nowadays, Johnson has even more to worry about than securing a safe place to sleep at night. During the week he was interviewed, Johnson said that he and Saack admitted themselves into a methadone clinic to deal with their heroin addictions. 

"We're trying to do what we got to do to get this thing right," Johnson said. "It's hard some days and some days it's easier. Yesterday, I found out I got prostate cancer. It's in the beginning stage, so they glad they caught it now. If it hadn't been for me and Cindy going into detox, where I got a physical, I wouldn't have found out about it."

Despite the recent troubles, though, Johnson still considers himself fortunate. Starbucks (which allows him to sell his magazines in front of its store, and even gives him free food), Housing Forward and StreetWise, he said, are his saving graces. So is honesty. 

"I'm learning to be honest about everything, because being honest opens doors for you," Johnson said. "People are more willing to help you if they see you're telling the truth." 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com  

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Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: December 6th, 2017 7:06 PM

That was a very expensive homeless shelter that we built in the center of town.

Tommy McCoy  

Posted: December 5th, 2017 5:26 PM

This is a very good story and I hope it will help others who are more fortunate financially learn not to judge some one because of the situation they are in. We were always taught to give and not to say what the person is going to use with the money. All that mattered was they needed some help. This is excellent work that people are giving of their time and resources to help others.

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