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Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis: “How Jackie Lorens Harris and Chicago Lights are providing comprehensive supportive services for their guests who are experiencing homelessness and poverty”

For as many challenging moments or days that I have, I have an equal number of moments I keep in my back pocket to remind me of the successes and wins I witness among guests or how our team of staff, volunteers, and supporters are able to accomplish meaningful work as a community. Those successes and positive wins always outweigh the challenging moments and remind me that we as humans are all on this journey together. No one person can do it all, nor should they, and there’s a huge sense of relief in that.

As a part of my series about “Heroes Of The Homeless Crisis” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jackie Lorens Harris. As the Social Service Center Director at Chicago Lights, Jackie directly oversees daily operations and strategic planning for the Chicago Lights Social Service Center and began her tenure with Chicago Lights in 2012 as the Center’s Program Development Manager. She supports the Social Service Center staff and interns who connect with 1,300 adults to encourage self-development, deep connections, and brighter futures through food and clothing services, case management, and enrichment programming.

Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work helping people who are homeless?

During my undergraduate career at DePaul University, I was heavily involved in community service opportunities, like weekly volunteering at the nearby afterschool program or mornings at the church’s soup kitchen, and then lived in an intentional community during my sophomore year. It wasn’t until my junior year when I went on my second service immersion trip to Los Angeles, stayed in shelter on Skid Row, and spent the week working with nonprofits that focus on homelessness and engaging with individuals experiencing homelessness that I knew that’s where I needed to focus my career. I always thought I’d work in political campaigns or in international relief efforts, but when I saw the extreme amount of disparity between those living on Rodeo Drive and those living at the corner of San Pedro and 6th Street for over 15 years, I knew a lot needed to be changed in my own backyard. I grew up within a middle-class family and never went without. When I saw adults calling the sidewalk their home and heard the unique and complex struggles they faced, many from childhood and to no fault of their own, I realized I wanted to prevent the continuation of that cycle and the policies that perpetuate it.

Homelessness has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities. Can you explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?

As of 2017, more than 86,000 people in Chicago were experiencing homelessness (https://www.chicagohomeless.org/faq-studies/). The homelessness crisis is complicated but is the result of decades of systemic racism, lack of affordable housing, unemployment, and mental health and substance abuse challenges. Two of these particular factors contribute to an increase in homelessness in several states, although the national numbers of those experiencing homelessness have decreased — housing affordability and access to mental health services. While many states and cities have seen a decrease in homelessness, they must combat the constant existence of homelessness with the availability of affordable housing. San Francisco and Los Angeles are two major cities that have been unable to meet the rising need of affordable housing due to the ever-increasing costs of living and housing costs in their cities. When various levels of government prioritize developers’ needs and increased property taxes, those who are at-risk of or experiencing homelessness quickly run out of more options. Likewise, certain states, including Illinois, have made mental health less of a priority over the past five years, though this trend is now improving with the most recent change in state administration. When the State of Illinois experienced its Budget Impasse from 2015 to 2017, many mental healthcare providers, substance use providers, and social service providers alike that were funded by the State of Illinois were directly affected by the lack of funding, resulting in massive program cuts, personnel layoffs, and entire agency closures. Without proper access to various types of counseling and psychiatric care, individuals and families feel more instability and lack support systems they need to maintain their health, employment, and, likely, their housing. Some agencies have been able to recover and rebuild their staff/programming in the past year or so, but some are still feeling the long-term effects of the impasse without the ability to connect with and support clients and consumers.

For the benefit of our readers, can you describe the typical progression of how one starts as a healthy young person with a place to live, a job, an education, a family support system, a social support system, a community support system, to an individual who is sleeping on the ground at night? How does that progression occur?

A person may have access to resources, but that doesn’t guarantee “success,” especially with the forces of systemic racism at work. A person may have a place to live, a job, an education, and family, social, and community support systems available, but for many of our guests, an unstable childhood has lasting mental and physical effects on their current well-being. This trauma can make it challenging to maintain a home, a job, an education, and these support systems. For people of color, systemic racism is another barrier, making it that much more difficult to maintain these needs. Any sort of “break” in these factors can quickly affect stability in other parts of one’s life — and this is true at both the micro and macro levels. For example, someone may have a positive amount of support in all these areas but is living paycheck to paycheck or has little to nothing in savings, and then a recession, or a pandemic like the one we’re currently experiencing, emerges and limits access to employment and income. Bills pile up, and rent is overdue or becomes increasingly difficult to pay. Family or community members may be able to help for a limited amount of time or feel uncomfortable having a relative/friend stay with them for very long. Mental health can deteriorate, and depression, anxiety, and/or substance use may emerge as a result or potential coping mechanism. The process might start with an entirely different factor (say, a medical issue occurs, and insurance doesn’t cover the diagnosis, or the individual doesn’t have adequate health insurance), but it is not unlikely that one factor will snowball into other detrimental factors, leading to the experience of homelessness.

This is exponentially more difficult for people of color to overcome. Homelessness is disproportionately reflected in communities of color due to the systemic policies local, state, and the federal government have perpetuated over centuries. People of color are more likely to get pushed into homelessness because they’re more likely to have a criminal record, making it more difficult to secure housing or a job. They might also have an eviction on their record. Or they can pay their monthly rent but can’t afford the security deposit to move into a new apartment. Even when a person of color is able to acquire stable housing and perhaps start a family, their children are already at a disadvantage as they grow older and face a multitude of systemic barriers, like a lack of access to quality healthcare and education their white peers have due to the comfort of generational wealth.

A question that many people who are not familiar with the intricacies of this problem ask is, “Why don’t homeless people just move to a city that has cheaper housing?” How do you answer this question?

Moving costs money, and people experiencing homelessness may not have enough money for a sandwich, let alone moving costs, security deposits, storage needs, or transportation to a different location. For many, Chicago may also be their home, meaning that they and previous generations of their family may have lived here for years. Even though the cost of living in Chicago may be more expensive than other cities or towns, leaving home is a daunting task, both mentally and physically. Additionally, if you are without stable housing, it would prove difficult to maintain gainful employment without regular access to food, water, and a comfortable place to sleep, let alone feel emotionally and psychologically well to maintain a job. The same is true vice versa — you can’t really afford suitable and stable housing without access to regular income, positive rental history, and funds saved up to afford the move. It’s a never-ending cycle unless you have support systems in place to get you started on that path.

If someone passes a homeless person on the street, what is the best way to help them?

The best way to help a person encountered on the street is to start with acknowledgment. Make eye contact, smile, and say “hello.” People experiencing homelessness are ignored by hundreds of people every day, so a little acknowledgment and kind words can go a long way. Also, think about the times you’ve been in need of help or support. Doesn’t it always feel better when someone asks, “How can I help?,” rather than having someone assume and just do something for you or tell you what you should do? Some individuals (again, think of yourself) may not want anything more than someone to talk to, or they may want to be alone in that moment, and that’s okay. It’s all about respecting that person’s needs or wants. If a person responds that they want support beyond a conversation, like a referral, transportation fare, some food, or money, you must decide how you feel most comfortable responding to that request. On a broader scale, you can also consider donating/supporting a local shelter or social service center in your community. These agencies are always in need of funds, in-kind donations, and volunteers. Or perhaps they have a mobile outreach team, and you could connect and build a relationship/trust with the person you first encountered to support them on their journey toward greater stability.

What is the best way to respond if a homeless person asks for money for rent or gas?

If a person experiencing homelessness asks you for money for rent or gas, you have the choice of offering something in return. If you aren’t able or comfortable providing money, you can say, “I can’t help you with that, but here is more information about Chicago Lights . . .” Or, “I can’t help you with that, but I’m sorry you’re experiencing this.” If you do offer money or other resources, know that they then have the freedom to use these resources as they wish. Part of being a giving person is being able to release control over how a resource is used.

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact battling this crisis?

The Chicago Lights Social Service Center provides comprehensive supportive services for our guests who are experiencing homelessness and poverty. We connect with more than 1,300 adults each year to encourage self-development, deep connections, and brighter futures through food and clothing services, case management, housing resources, and enrichment programming. Together, these programs help adults pursue and reach their goals toward achieving greater stability. At the core of our work is ensuring guests are the authors and experts of their life journeys. We are there to support, encourage, and empower guests to make choices and progress that are realistic to them and in the appropriate time frame. Through Good Neighbors Street Outreach and drop-in services, we create a gateway to connection and trust. We provide guests with immediate needs and use those shorter engagements to assess what long-term goals they may want to focus on, gather more unique information about the guest and their life story, and continuously encourage engagement through their level of comfort. As these relationships strengthen among staff and guests, we suggest programming such as individual case management and/or enrichment groups, taking more intentional time to consider both a guest’s long-term goals (housing, mental and/or physical health, benefits/income, education, etc.) and the personal and systemic barriers that prevent a guest from achieving their goals. From there, we create a plan as partners on this journey and know that it can take support from a network of service providers, housing providers, community advocates, and health professionals to achieve some of these long-term goals.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the homeless crisis, and the homeless community? Also how has it affected your ability to help people?

Many shelters and agencies are operating at limited capacities or closed entirely, leaving people experiencing homelessness even more vulnerable than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic. The City of Chicago and its service providers are continuously evaluating how to best support those experiencing homelessness during, or because of, the pandemic. Shelters are partnering with nearby churches, community centers, and City-identified spaces to provide at least the same number of beds prior to the pandemic but with as much social distancing as possible. The Chicago Department of Public Health has deployed at least 40 nurses to act as consultants to shelters and congregate living environments to provide immediate care, offer strategies to mitigate the spread of symptoms, respond to outbreaks, and expand testing. While our building at Chicago Lights may be closed, we’re still able to provide curbside services of food, clothing, and toiletries to our guests while following health and safety guidelines. It’s important now, more than ever, that we remain a resource for our guests in any way we can. Additionally, we have met several new guests who are finding themselves new to the experience of homelessness because they are returning citizens, having served a majority, or all, of their court sentence. Folks who were sentenced to prison for over 20 years are coming to our doors and asking how to access payphones and bus tokens — this is a huge culture shock for a multitude of reasons. Individuals who have not been court-involved but experiencing homelessness have had to press pause on goals related to housing, employment, and identification documents. The Chicago Housing Authority is still processing applications and Chicago-area permanent supportive housing agencies are trying to remove as many barriers to housing as possible so applicants can reduce their time from (homelessness to housed) 60 to 45 days, but the current affordable housing inventory is still unable to meet the demand and need for shelter and housing.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

As I moved into the role of Director of the Social Service Center five years ago, I took a step back from direct services and realized I’m now able to witness friendships and communities forming and thriving more than ever before. My previous role meant focusing on my particular caseload or engaging with a select group of guests. Now I get to learn about a much larger number of our guests through consultations with our staff and interns.

I am always strengthened by the fact that so many of our guests find community and welcome in our space, whether that’s through our staff and volunteers meeting them for the first time during Street Outreach and feeling ready and willing to walk into our offices on their own, or friendships forming among guests who attend our weekly enrichment groups, or rekindled relationships between guests and their families. I love being a part of a space that encourages second chances through new and repaired relationships.

One story that stands out in particular is our annual Open Doors Project (ODP) graduation. ODP is a year-long case management program for up to eight guests who participate in weekly individual case management meetings along with weekly support meetings with fellow participants. A few years ago, our graduates were coming to the end of their ceremony, and as is tradition, we invited attendees to share well wishes with a particular graduate, or with the entire group. A young woman stood up and shared how proud she was of her dad and how happy she was to reconnect with him recently so he could see his grandchildren more often. Following the ceremony, that same graduate pulled me aside to thank the Social Service Center for being able to participate in ODP, not only because he reunited with his daughter and his grandchildren, but also because it was the first time he graduated from something. He had dropped out of high school before his senior year and recently found the energy and motivation to work toward his GED. The pride and accomplishment in his voice and his eyes is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

Without sharing real names, can you share a story with our readers about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your work?

I met Jennifer a couple months into her working with Chicago Lights. She was in her mid-30s and had a long history with substance abuse and chronic homelessness. Jennifer typically came in for clothing and hygiene items and grabbed a lunch from Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago’s Meals Ministry program. Like many of our guests, Jennifer worked with a team of mental health providers at a partner agency, which would monitor her mental and physical health needs, with the hope of eventually locating permanent supportive housing through the agency’s housing subsidy connections. Jennifer worked with a number of our case managers over the years and was presented with a few housing opportunities, but deadlines passed and Jennifer was put back on waiting lists multiple times — we couldn’t access some of her identification documents in time, she missed interviews with the housing provider, and sometimes, we just didn’t see Jennifer for weeks at a time.

Around May 2017, her name came up for another permanent housing unit. Over the past year, she and I worked on applying for Social Security Disability Benefits, making sure she attended all medical appointments, and most importantly to her, rekindling her relationship with her teenage daughters, who lived with Jennifer’s mom. For some reason, this housing opportunity was different for Jennifer. She felt more ready. She was ready to commit to a new set of goals, and we worked together over the next several weeks to fill out assessments, obtain documentation, get medical records from physicians, and attend a Chicago Housing Authority interview.

Within a week of the interview, Jennifer was approved for permanent supportive housing, and I met her at her new building to help her sign her lease. Her first request was to get a few things to make the apartment more homey so her teen daughters could visit and spend the night that weekend. I’ve seen Jennifer less and less over the years, but she still lives in the same apartment and continues to work on both her recovery as well as her relationship with her family. She seems stronger, happier, and healthier. She always had the tools and skills to do this on her own, she just needed to feel ready and for someone to be patient and walk with her along the way.

Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this crisis? Can you give some examples?

  1. Support your local nonprofits and service providers, especially during this pandemic. Reach out to the staff and ask what they need most — donations (monetary and/or in-kind), volunteers, networking on their behalf for more supporters, sponsoring an event, etc. Staff who are on the frontlines know exactly what they (and their guests/clients/consumers) need. Let them be the experts in their work and their needs.
  2. Advocate for people of color. This can be through supporting the development and growth of black-owned businesses, calling out racial injustice when you see it(personally and institutionally), ensure your local government and economy provide equity and inclusion for communities of color, and be an ally. That means listening more than speaking, being willing to learn and make mistakes, and creating safe spaces so people of color have their voices heard by those in power.
  3. Combat the stigmas associated with mental illness, substance use, and of course, homelessness. What you see on TV and in movies is extremely exaggerated and inaccurate, regarding the causes, symptoms, and effects of all three issues. These are realities for too many people and should not be taboo topics, nor should people who experience them be ostracized. Talk openly about them, educate yourself, and acknowledge implicit bias.

If you had the power to influence legislation, which three laws would you like to see introduced that might help you in your work?

1. Investment in affordable and public housing at the federal and state level, with the utilization of a Housing First model. The Ending Homelessness Act (H.R. 1856, S. 2613) is one of four bills that would appropriate funds for this effort. It was marked up and approved by the House Financial Services Committee in 2019, but no action has been taken since.

2. Federal Living Wage. Many cities, including Chicago, are taking on the task of increasing the minimum wage, but until the gap between the minimum wage and housing costs shrinks, poverty and homelessness will persist.

3. Abolishing the Three Strikes Law. While this harsher sentencing for a third offense was intended for those convicted of murder, rape, and other severe violent offenses, more than half of inmates sentenced under the law are serving sentences for nonviolent crimes. This law disproportionately affects minority populations, as well as defendants with mental and/or physical disabilities. Returning citizens have increased difficulty in overcoming homelessness when released due to additional stigmas.

I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?

Burnout in social services (and any field within the nonprofit sector) is real, and it definitely makes its presence known to me from time to time. However, the people I work with — my team members, my colleagues, my supervisor, our volunteers, and especially our guests — remind me why I’m committed to this work. For as many challenging moments or days that I have, I have an equal number of moments I keep in my back pocket to remind me of the successes and wins I witness among guests or how our team of staff, volunteers, and supporters are able to accomplish meaningful work as a community. Those successes and positive wins always outweigh the challenging moments and remind me that we as humans are all on this journey together. No one person can do it all, nor should they, and there’s a huge sense of relief in that.

Do you have hope that one day this great social challenge can be solved completely?

I have . . . cautious optimism. There’s evidence in particular cities, like Houston and Salt Lake City, and even in particular countries, like Finland and Iceland, that curbing homelessness (especially among veterans) is very possible. But to eradicate homelessness across the United States, it would take more than hope — it would take deep structural change, in policy, in perspective, and in priorities. The aforementioned cities and countries prioritized collaboration between the nonprofit and public sectors and invested in the development of more public and affordable housing. Until that becomes a reality across the country and until we commit to destigmatizing mental illness, substance abuse, and homelessness, poverty and homelessness will continue to exist.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Practice what you preach regarding self-care. I’m huge on encouraging my staff and colleagues to practice self-care but terrible at doing it myself. It is crucial to find actions or self-affirmations that give you joy and revive you, or burnout will always be around the corner.
  2. “I don’t know” is a very acceptable answer. This is pretty much the opposite of “fake it ’til you make it,” and it shows others that no one has all the answers. You are not, nor should you be, the smartest person in the room. You should constantly look for opportunities to learn, question yourself, and discover solutions with others.
  3. As you move up the nonprofit leadership ladder, prepare to wear every hat, sometimes on the same day. And sometimes, while juggling . . . and riding a unicycle. This reiterates why #1 is so important.
  4. Manage, and re-manage, your expectations — regarding your to-do list, your calendar, your fundraising goals, how flawless that difficult conversation will go with that colleague or donor, etc.
  5. Create a personal Board of Directors. Every nonprofit has a Board of Directors that provides guidance and accountability. One of my Leadership Cohort facilitators recently shared the idea of creating your own Board, and I love the idea of a personal powerhouse of leaders who can inspire you, provide wisdom, and keep you in check when you need it most.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would expand social enterprise opportunities. Too many times I’ve heard guests share they would work or take a job if someone just gave them a chance. And so many individuals who are experiencing homelessness are not considered vulnerable enough to qualify for certain types of housing or government benefit, let alone maintain gainful employment because they lack safe shelter to return to each day. They haven’t been homeless “long enough,” or they’re in good health, or they didn’t serve in the armed forces, so they have to prolong their lack of housing and employment, while likely experiencing deteriorated health, before they are eligible for those who are considered “worse off.” Social enterprises create the opportunity for skill-building, a living wage, job experience, and contribute to the local economy. Several in the Chicago-area include supportive services like case management, counseling, and additional job placement because they recognize no matter the population they support (young adults, new mothers, returning citizens, or no specific demographics at all), you must support a person as a whole person, if you truly want someone to not just survive, but thrive and grow.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“You can either be the doctor, or the patient. And I refuse to be the patient.” — Tommy Wrenn, a Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, AL. I met Mr. Wrenn when I was leading a service immersion trip to Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama, and we visited the local Civil Rights Activist Committee Headquarters, which he founded. Mr. Wrenn gave two hours of his time to a group of young college students from Chicago and talked about his days of walking with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a Foot Soldier and a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It’s a metaphor that has stuck with me no matter the situation. We’re always faced with a choice of fighting and resolving an injustice or laying victim to it. We should always refuse to fall victim to an injustice, even if it doesn’t affect us directly.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

I would love to have breakfast with Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I have always admired her commitment to gender equality, her tenacity, and her determination to thrive despite facing adversity. Regardless of the years and roles she has served in her career, she has stayed true to her values and spoken truth to power. I recently had to share my favorite quote about leadership, and it comes from Justice Ginsburg: “Fight for the things you care about, but do so in a way that will lead others to join you.” I always strive to lead by example and live out my values, just as Justice Ginsburg has done her entire life.

How can our readers follow you online?

I highly recommend learning more about Chicago Lights at chicagolights.org and following Chicago Lights through its various social media channels on Facebook (@chicagolights), Instagram (@chicago.lights), and Twitter (@chicagolights). Readers can also connect with me on LinkedIn (linkedin.com/in/jackielorens)

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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