By: Abi Weber
As I was warned upon beginning my job at Inspiration Corporation, a nonprofit that provides housing, supportive services, and employment training for people experiencing homelessness and poverty, there is never a boring day at the office. Whether it’s getting to know my lively co-workers or working with difficult participants, each day presents new challenges and excitements. Last week, though, certain events showed me how not all days are “interesting” – some are disturbing and emotionally draining. They also serve as a reminder, though, of the importance of the work that both Inspiration and AVODAH do.
The Inspiration offices sit on the corner of Broadway and Wilson, two avenues known for being part of what was, many decades ago, the bustling, ritzy neighborhood of Uptown. Today, the intersection is mainly known for being one of the most violent on the North Side of Chicago. Although the rent in the area continues to rise and push out working- and middle-class residents, gangs have maintained their presence in the neighborhood and often compete for use of the corner for their business transactions.
In the last week, tensions that had been building between these gangs came to a head in the form of three shootings in four days. This past Tuesday, I was sitting in my office working on a spreadsheet when shots rang out on the corner. As is protocol, we locked the main door and kept away from the windows. When it was clear that the shooting had passed, my coworkers and I approached the window overlooking the scene: the police had arrived, their sirens blaring as they pushed the perpetrators onto the ground and handcuffed them. It appeared that no one had actually been hit, and that the three people who had been engaged in the shooting were apprehended. I looked at one man, who couldn’t have been more than 20 years old, as he lay facedown while an officer straddled him. My immediate thought was: he looks so young, and now his life is ruined. Beyond the simple question of why one person would try to kill another, I wondered why anyone, knowing that this corner has police cameras and a near constant police presence, choose to pull out a gun and shoot someone. How could that risk be worth it? My only conclusion was that it wasn’t much of a choice at all, and that these people were more than likely pawns in an ongoing battle between powerful people. Whoever stood to gain from these violent acts, it wasn’t those boys on the ground.
One of the reasons I was so perturbed by both the violence and the arrests was that each day at work, I see and hear from people whose criminal backgrounds prevent them obtaining employment. Just a few days prior to the shooting, a polite, soft-spoken gentleman sat across from me in my office and told me how he had just been released from prison, was currently homeless and unemployed, and would love if I could explain our services to him, slowly, as he had not been outside of prison walls for years and needed time to wrap his head around all these new things. No matter why he had been incarcerated in the first place, he had served his time and was now ready to re-enter the workforce and do something good for the community. I was amazed by his earnestness – and saddened by the knowledge that he would undoubtedly struggle (even more than the other victims of the recession) to find a job. A few days later, three boys on the corner would begin down this path themselves.
Coming home from work that Tuesday, I felt shaken by what I had seen and disheartened by what seemed to be an endless cycle. I spent hours reading about the many drug busts in Uptown in the last few years; they were usually followed by a period of frenzied fighting as gangs re-established their dominance, then relative peace as the situation was settled. A few months later, the process would begin again. It was easy to feel powerless in the face of this cycle of violence, especially when I felt that my small part – giving out free phone numbers and a voice mail box to people looking for employment – was insignificant.
Seeing all of my housemates, though, I was encouraged by the fact that through our combined efforts, maybe we could make an impact on poverty in Chicago: there’s Lev, who is a community organizer and mobilizes Southsiders to fight for better conditions; Leila, who sets up winter farmers’ markets, letting people use food stamps to access healthy food; and Lily, who helps people with HIV and AIDS find subsidized housing. Actually, all 13 of my housemates do pretty incredible things. Instead of feeling useless and insignificant when I come home, I feel like I’m a part of something bigger. Whether we’re building a protest sukkah outside the Mortgage Banker’s Association annual meeting or sending out job fair information to unemployed people, my AVODAH buddies and I are doing our best to address poverty from many angles and support one another in the process.
I’m still shaken by the shooting and don’t think I’ll ever get used to hearing gunshots outside my office. But at least I can find some comfort in the knowledge that my efforts and those of my housemates are making a difference in the lives of many people, potential gang members or not. As we work to eradicate the root causes of poverty, I hope that we can all use our interesting days to remember that what we are doing is important – in fact, it’s the most important thing in the world.
Abi Weber is from Lincoln, NE and attended Pomona College. As an AVODAH Chicago Corps member, she is a Community Voice Mail Coordinator at Inspiration Corporation, which 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.