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Where the heart is

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Updated: March 4, 2014 4:33PM

February is a month when feelings of the heart are spoken aloud, when love is celebrated. But for an estimated 6,276 homeless individuals in Chicago, February is a brutal month. The only thing they carry in their heart is the hope of a warm home. While many have found temporary shelter, an estimated 1,200 singles and families remain unsheltered.

At Renaissance Social Services in Chicago, we’re doing what we can to change this. Our staff and so many others have worked tirelessly through the year to find shelter for our fellow Chicagoans. Over the past two years, we’re proud to have found housing and provided ongoing life skills training for 120 people who were homeless.

I’ll never forget when our organization relocated to Oakley St. in Chicago’s Near West neighborhood. Almost immediately, I noticed a small group of homeless individuals living under the bridge next to our office. Imagine the frustration knowing that your job is to help the homeless, but right next to you, people are living and sleeping on the street.

But helping them wasn’t as simple as you might imagine. While you may see some homeless individuals approach cars asking for help, the majority are self-protective, wary of strangers and far removed from asking for help. They live in fear. We had to take baby steps in an effort to develop trust, in hopes that they would take a chance at a new life.

I asked all of our staff to make an effort each day to befriend the group living under the bridge — to reach out regularly and show them we were here for them, recognizing they had many responsibilities and other people to help as well. We began showing members of the group where to find the nearest food pantry. If we received a coat donation, we went to them first. Gradually, we developed a relationship — this is how change begins. As we got to know each of the individuals, we kept asking if they’d be interested in us trying to help them find housing. It only takes one person to take that first step out of self-protection.

It took almost three years, but one man finally told us that he was ready. He’s now been in an apartment for more than a year. I know that we were meant to move our office here to help this group of individuals. We’re hoping that the other members of the group under the bridge will continue to accept our support, even in small ways, and when they are ready, we will help them find someplace they can call home as well.

There are ways that you can help, too. The next time you give someone a dollar for a hot coffee, please also give them some advice that will help them get a home. Make sure they call 311 and put their name on the housing list — or make the call for them if they don’t have a phone. If your local soup kitchen or church asks for volunteers, join in to make sandwiches or serve food. Be involved. You’ll understand that anyone can become homeless as a matter of circumstance.

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