Breaking the Cycle of Homelessness for Women in Chicago
by: Taylor Buck
I transferred from community college to Shimer in 2008, so the next academic year will be my last, which means thesis, Integrative Studies 5 and 6, and grad school (or employment) planning. It means actually, in REALITY, reaching this previously mythical point where I think I might, maybe, perhaps know what I want to do with my life. Sort of. Or, to put it more accurately, I understand more completely that I want to do more than is possible with my life. BUT... it's the "doing" that I'm trying to get at.
Reading has changed my life, Shimer has changed my life, discussions have changed my life, and mind. I see no validity in the claim that theory is useless, that sitting around flapping our jaws is a waste of time, time that could be used to DO SOMETHING! I think what's important is praxis. A combination of insight, theory, discussion, a cohesive understanding of society and ideas, and the real attempt to change things, to participate. So. That's why I'm here, at Deborah's Place, working all summer as a case manager in the basement Learning Center.
Deborah's Place is a difficult organization to explain in brief, but in an attempt I usually quote the first sentence of the mission statement: "Breaking the cycle of homelessness for women in Chicago." We have 3 permanent housing buildings around the city (one of which is part of the site at which I work), 1 interim housing program, 1 Safe Haven for women with severe mental disabilities (both of these are also at my site), and 2 learning centers. The most remarkable thing about this organization, besides its aim to help chronically homeless women specifically, is its method and philosophy. We use the harm reduction method, as well as motivational interviewing, and encourage communication without judgment. Particularly at the Learning Center, which provides resources for off-site women (my clients) and women who live at other Deborah's Place programs, we emphasize to every woman that she will always be welcome.
There seem to be 2 parts to my job: the case management half, and the Learning Center interaction and participation half. I must be constantly versatile, because one moment I may be playing cards with a Patty Crowley Apartments tenant, and another moment I may receive a phone call from a woman who has just been kicked out of her home. Later that day, I may need to help a client apply for disability benefits or call to make an appointment with her doctor.
One woman is deaf and knits the same perfect scarf over and over, each time in a different color yarn. She watches me frequently, and smiles when I look up. Another is from Haiti, has a joyful giggle, and tells me regularly "I just don't understand why people have to argue and be so unkind to each other!" Another woman could play Gin Rummy all day. She asks me for a game as soon as I walk in the door. And another, who we haven't seen in about a week now (after daily visits since I started) said to me a few weeks ago, after explaining that it shouldn't be anyone else's business what a person's sexual orientation is, "It's sad to be living in such an uptight world."
These women are beautiful. They are hilarious. They hurt. They are skeptical. Maybe she likes pumpkin pie, or velour, or reading the horoscope of whoever's in the room and will listen. Maybe she just got a promotion at her job. Maybe she has been homeless off and on for 12 years, and is losing her hearing. Maybe she needs to talk for an hour about why her daughter won't answer her phone call.
I am learning things tutorials can't teach me. I am developing a real understanding of classism, racism and sexism that books can put in words but fail to let me feel.
Though I haven't been here long, I realize already that this internship will play an indispensable role in my future, whether that be in social work, local or global activism, or in academia. I would not have been able financially to take this internship if it weren't for the Kemper grant, so I'm very thankful for that also. I'll write more about what I'm doing on the Shimer Blog as the summer progresses.