Rebecca Ratner is from Golden Valley, MN and attended Brandeis University. As a Chicago Corps member, she is a Housing and Supportive Services Assistant at Inspiration Corporation, an organization that helps people who are affected by homelessness and poverty to improve their lives and increase self-sufficiency through the provision of social services, employment training and placement, and housing, in an atmosphere of dignity and respect.
My commute to work takes about 20-minutes. I know I am extremely lucky to have such a short ride, considering many of my fellow Corps members travel over an hour to get to their placements. And yet, within those 20 minutes, I am transported into an entirely different world. I leave the cozy coffee shops of Andersonville and the delicious bakeries on Clark Street, and I enter into Uptown, an area with one of the densest populations of homeless individuals in Chicago. There are several shelters within a four block radius of my office on Broadway and Wilson, each catering to a different population. One has services for families, another is specifically for men. There are two more that are focused on helping women or women with children and another close by that helps ex-offenders.
I work at Inspiration Corporation, a non profit that provides case management, employment training programs, and restaurant style meals to the homeless population in Chicago. My job is to do Open Case Management, a program that assists individuals coming from shelters, the streets, or other social service agencies and who are interested in getting involved in our programs. I help them with housing, inform them about the various services we offer, and get them referrals for clothes, medical care, dental care, and shelters. Two times a week for two hours the halls are lined with people waiting to see me, waiting to tell me their stories. Each person wants and needs something different, and it’s my job to figure out how I can help.
When I first started working, I had grand visions of getting every person I met a nice new apartment, fully furnished, and a new job to boot. I thought that by the end of my year at Inspiration, all of my clients would be housed, employed, and financially stable. Those plans were quickly foiled by incredibly long housing waitlists, a lack of jobs in the city, and the inability for many of my clients to work or maintain housing because of mental illnesses or disabilities. I realized that by the end of the year many of my clients would still be homeless. It was a tough epiphany for me, I felt discouraged and frustrated that I couldn’t make the kind of difference in these people’s lives that I wanted to.
About a month into my job, I began noticing that while I wasn’t able to give people apartments as soon as they walked in the door, I could do little things for them that made an impact. I had a client come in who needed new eyeglasses, some new clothes for a job interview he had, and a referral to a medical clinic. After I gave him all the referrals, he looked at me and said “you just helped me more in the last ten minutes than other agencies have in weeks.” I saw how important it was for people to be asked their name when they came in to see me, how offering them coffee or a glass of water was monumental for many of my clients. Inspiration Corporation’s mission is to treat people with dignity and respect, and I saw how much of a difference it made for so many of my clients to feel like they mattered, and that I was going to try my hardest to help them.
Over the past few months, I have gotten a few people housed, and a few people have gotten into our job training programs and are well on their way to employment. Those successes are incredible and I am so thrilled to have made them possible. But I also relish the smiles I get when I tell a mother that I can get her access to free diapers, when I help someone get new eyeglasses or new clothes, or when I can provide them with a few minutes to tell their story in a safe and welcoming environment.
As I leave my office each day and start my 20-minute commute back to the bakeries and coffee shops of Andersonville, I feel good about what I have accomplished. I know that before the year is out I won’t have solved homelessness or gotten all of my clients housed, but I will have given hundreds of people the dignity and respect they deserve.