By Tom Holmes
Kim and Anthony, two former area residents, will feel especially grateful this holiday season because a year ago they were sleeping in a tent in a secluded part of Forest Park and panhandling for money on the ramps where Harlem crosses I-290.
And now they have moved into an apartment.
How they got off the street and into their own home is a variation on the adage, "It takes a village" to do more than raise a child.
"Kim and I got lucky," Anthony explained, "and met some angels."
One of those angels was a Forest Parker named Melanie who on a hot, muggy day in July 2019 felt compassion for the panhandlers sweating in the hot sun. She responded by buying some bottled water at Thornton's gas station on Harlem and walking up to the ramps.
"I had no clue what I was doing," she recalled. "I knew nothing about homelessness. I just saw that they were very exposed out on the ramps, and I heard a direct message — I believe from a power higher than me — to get off my butt and do what I could."
One of panhandlers she met was named Kim who not only accepted the gift of water but engaged in a conversation. And that was the beginning of a friendship that has lasted till this day and also the beginning of Melanie's growing awareness of what it is like to be homeless and how hard it is to leave it behind.
"I came to know them well," she said, "and what they faced was a living hell. You have no idea that day if you will eat or not, and you can't always find a place to sleep. Anthony was stabbed once, Kim regularly being asked to do sex acts she had no interest in doing.
"They were insulted on a daily basis by people driving by and saying 'I hate homeless people. You're all losers. Get a job.'"
Melanie bristled when she added, "I challenge anyone, myself included, to live on the street for one week with no support and then tell homeless people to get a job. How do you get a job when you have no phone, and therefore employers can't call you back? How are you supposed to go to a job interview when you don't have access to a shower, have no clean clothes and are exhausted because you slept literally on concrete the night before?"
She knew that homelessness was a complex issue before she met Kim and Anthony, but reading a book on the subject and knowing statistics is different than knowing people personally.
Melanie has more empathy than answers for her friends.
"I care about them," she said, "and so it's been very painful to watch them suffer. I don't always agree with their decisions and, more than that, I don't even know what I'm doing half the time in my attempts to help them."
In addition to helping the couple out from time to time with money, a sandwich or a ride to an appointment, Melanie also encouraged them to ask for help from Housing Forward, a local non-profit, which they did. The nonprofit responded by not only supplying them with a room at the Carleton Hotel in Oak Park, but also by providing them with meals on most days, Link Cards, Ventra passes and doctor appointments.
From the Carleton they were moved into a room at the Write Inn on Oak Park Avenue in October and began an interim program designed to move formerly homeless people out of shelters into their own housing. Dannette, their first case worker, more or less took them by the hand and led them step by step toward the goal of moving into an apartment.
While Kim and Anthony were grateful for a comfortable place with a shower to return to every night, they also found the structure and rules that went with the program difficult to abide by. Kim admitted there is a certain freedom that goes with being homeless. You don't have to punch a time clock, and you have don't have to follow rules in the workplace or an apartment building.
Anthony added that even if you do not have a diagnosed mental illness when you start living on the street, that lifestyle quickly changes you.
"When you have been homeless for a while," he said, "it's hard to get back into society, into a structured environment."
"It was really tough," he said. "Housing Forward required a lot out of us. Dannette told us that if we did not show evidence of accomplishing something toward the goal of becoming independent every time we met, this program wasn't for us."
One expectation early on was that the two get state IDs, a document necessary for jobs, opening bank accounts, and many other steps on the way to independence. When they arrived at the DMV center, what they found was a line wrapping around the building. After three hours they finally arrived at the facility's door where an agent told them that they did not have the correct paperwork.
"I started to panic," said Kim, who admits to having issues with anxiety. "Dannette will have our butts. She had threatened us that this is our last chance."
They entered the center despite what the gatekeeper had told them and were received by an employee who was more understanding and who took care of getting them the identification they needed.
In many ways, Dannette was playing the role of a parent and treating Kim and Anthony like children, which is what often happens in other recovery programs and which Anthony later acknowledged was what they needed.
"Without Dannette being so hard on us," he said, "we would not have gotten our IDs, insurance, and into counseling. Her tough love was the only reason we have made it this far. She kept us in line and gave us the structure to move forward."
Anthony's comment illustrates the balance Housing Forward tries to maintain in their attempt to help homeless people transition from living on the street to having their own place. Jeremiah, the couple's present caseworker, compared the process to learning to ride a bicycle. He said Housing Forward will provide the training wheels you need as you learn how to ride but at some point the training wheels come off and you have to ride on your own.
Kim and Anthony moved into their own apartment in Northlake on Nov. 6, but that's only halfway "home." Jeremiah said Housing Forward will take care of their rent for November and December but after that, they will have to start carrying a portion of the load. Housing Forward will require them to begin contributing 30 percent of their gross income from the employment they find, and the nonprofit will assist them in finding jobs, so they can continue on the path toward independence.
Both Jeremiah and the formerly homeless couple acknowledged there have been bumps in the road. Kim and Anthony have made mistakes and have not always been disciplined. Housing Forward has limited resources and has not always been able to give them what they hoped to provide.
On the one hand, Kim and Anthony are excited to finally be off the street and in their own home. They are immensely grateful to Housing Forward, Anthony's mother, Melanie, and other angels who have helped them get this far. On the other hand, the two of them admit to being scared because they now have increased accountability and more responsibility for paying the bills.
Melanie, reflecting on her experience with Kim and Anthony during the last 16 months, said, "Homelessness is a confusing and difficult trap to get out of. A lot of the responsibility for doing so lies with them, but they can't do it alone. It takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a village to get homeless people off the street."
Mindful that the holidays are here, she said, "If I am being used by God to help someone else, what a profound privilege. I am the one who has benefited from knowing them. They have given me the gift of their friendship."
Editor's note: Melanie is the wife of freelance reporter Tom Holmes.
Answer Book 2019
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