Just before Christmas last year, William stood in his new apartment on Chicago’s North Side. A survivor of both HIV and cancer, he had experienced housing instability in one form or another for nearly a decade.
Finally, he had a place to call home.
“I have my life back,” said William, 63, who has asked to go by his first name only for this story. “Having a home is essential for everything, for everyone. I have a sense of my own place in the world after losing it.”
Alongside him, Andrew Taylor also toured the apartment, already envisioning where William could decorate with his paintings on easels and on walls.
One of two full-time housing case managers at Nourishing Hope, Taylor works with people experiencing homelessness and connects them to housing resources.
“Outcomes are so hard with the type of work we do, and so getting to experience joy with people is the best outcome,” said Taylor, 23. “Having joy and finding positivity with someone who’s been through a lot — it’s the best part of the job.”
For William, that joy was a long time coming. He fell on hard times due to an ongoing series of medical challenges. He tested positive for HIV in 2006, and was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2018. Bills piled up, and his credit suffered.
“It wasn’t kind of scary, it was very scary,” William said. “I had no other option but to be strong, through all of it. Because I had to, to survive.”
Taylor’s was a valuable resource in helping William navigate the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) application process. Within weeks, William was being screened for an apartment.
William gets by on a fixed income through public benefits. Nourishing Hope’s grant program helped him cover transitional costs — move-in fees, low-cost movers, and other related services. He’s been living in this apartment happily since the holidays.
“I have the chance to do my artwork, put my life together in a new way, and use all the things I’ve learned about life, and the world, and myself,” William said.
Taylor has seen the change this new stability has sparked in William firsthand.
“The conversations we’re having have shifted,” Taylor said. “Now, we get to talk about the things that make life comfortable and enjoyable.”
Putting housing first
In fall 2020, Taylor became a full-time pantry coordinator after a stint as an intern in the volunteer department. He describes it as his favorite job he’s had besides his current role.
“The hard part about that job is that you’re also the person who everyone is asking for help with things besides food,” said Taylor. “You hear they need SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, they need housing, or there’s something going on at home with their partner or their kids. I wanted to be the person who could help.”
Edward Macias, the Pantry’s other full-time housing case manager, felt a similar calling.
“We have a shortage of housing and an abundance of need, and that doesn’t sit right with me,” said Macias, 30.
After graduating with a master’s in public policy administration with a specialization in urban development and housing, Macias has worked with a variety of populations, including undocumented families, at-risk youth, refugees of war, homeless veterans, and individuals recently released from prison — many of whom frequent Lakeview’s services.
“People need to be housed before they can take care of their other needs,” said Macias. “Before they can take care of other things that are very important, like employment, family and healthcare — it all starts with a roof over your head.”
Caseloads for each housing case manager range from 20 to 40 people per month. This fiscal year, the team helped connect nearly 400 individuals to rental assistance or housing stability services, which include affordable housing referrals and public benefits. Some people only ask to meet once a month, while others seek support multiple times a week.
“If someone’s housed,” Taylor said, “it’s a lot easier to do everything else.”
Space for housing at a food pantry
Nourishing Hope is able to fund two housing case management positions to provide emergency rental assistance, thanks to a grant from the Illinois Housing Development Authority (IHDA).
Housing assistance is one example of how the Pantry has evolved to become more than a food pantry in recent years. We’ve also ramped up mental wellness counseling and other forms of support to address the complex and often interwoven challenges that people experience.
“Nourishing Hope has been a solid force for me. It’s been really helpful. You’re the only friendly interaction and safe place. I’ve encountered really great people volunteering here when I come and pick up my food. I was treated like a human being.” -William, Nourishing Hope visitor
Taylor and Macias describe their approach to homelessness as three-pronged: prevention, stabilization, and exit. In preventing homelessness, keeping someone housed is the primary goal. People who visit Nourishing Hope are frequently already making tough choices about how to allocate their limited resources. As case managers, the team is able to connect them with options — such as SNAP and Medicaid — to avoid having to make those decisions.
For those currently experiencing homelessness, stabilization is the goal.
“Even if we can’t house you right now, what can we do short-term to give you some agency, and the ability to make choices?” Taylor asked. “Where are you showering? Do you need to see a doctor?”
Finally, the team tackles exiting homelessness, which entails connecting people to shelter. Not only can this be tricky to navigate, but intimidating or even scary, particularly for those experiencing episodic homelessness for the first time.
Taylor and Macias are part of the Chicago Coordinated Entry System (CES), designed to ensure that all people experiencing a housing crisis have fair and equal access to the service system. As CES Skilled Assessors, they can sit down with those facing homelessness — such as staying in a shelter, outdoors, or any place not meant for human habitation — as well as those in unstable housing to complete an assessment and explore housing options.
“We now have the capacity to follow someone from entering homelessness to exiting,” Taylor said.
For William, this companionship through his experience was crucial. In addition to housing assistance, he’s also received food and mental wellness counseling to help him cope with the loss of loved ones.
“Nourishing Hope has been a solid force for me,” William said. “It’s been really helpful. I’ve encountered really great people volunteering here when I come and pick up my food. And it’s a good selection of food. I was treated like a human being.”
Building trust and rapport
In Chicago and across the U.S., Black and Latino households are more likely to experience food insecurity than white households because of systemic racism and inequitable access to food, jobs, affordable housing and other resources.
Those racial disparities have only deepened during the pandemic, as communities and households of color have been disproportionately affected by the virus and its economic impact.
“We have a shortage of housing and an abundance of need, and that doesn’t sit right with me.” -Edward Macias, housing case manager
Macias, who is also fluent in Spanish, says that the ability to provide services and have conversations in someone’s preferred language is crucial.
“If we don’t have that element, it becomes exceedingly difficult to connect with that population,” said Macias. “We lose a tremendous amount of people who are in need of our services: food, mental health, rental assistance, all of it.”
Language is an even more significant challenge for people who are undocumented, and may not immediately feel comfortable walking in or sharing their personal information.
“There are a lot of fears, a lot of anxieties and a lot of unknowns,” Macias said. “Part of my role is dismantling a lot of that stigma, and this notion that we would treat them any differently than English-speaking clients. It helps build trust and rapport with clients.”
For Macias, the stigma that many people who are undocumented face is one of the most difficult parts of the job. A recent reporting collaboration between the Chicago Tribune and Injustice Watch has documented a growing housing crisis for undocumented older adults.
“We just try to say that we’re here, and anyone can receive services,” Macias added. “No, you don’t need insurance; no, you don’t need to be documented; we don’t discriminate.”
‘I’m not alone now’
William, for all he’s been through, feels deeply motivated to help others.
“You cannot give up,” he said. “Rest, and start again the next day. It’s the only way up and out of it.”
“My case managers stuck by me during it all,” he continued. “I had my moments, believe me, when I just melted down. It was too much for me. But so many demons got put down. And I’m rebuilding my ability to trust.”
William can plan for a future that brings him joy and hope.
“I just want to do artwork, be happy and fulfilled, and be helpful in the world, too,” he said. “No matter where you are in life, you can help people out. You can be sensitive to situations. It does feel good to do that, but that’s not why I do it — I do it because I’ve been there.”
William says he’s continuing to heal from his experiences with homelessness. His PTSD and panic attacks have lessened. His health has improved. He wants to give back.
Soon, William plans to start volunteering at the organizations that have helped him through difficult times. He wants to go back to the work he loves: flower design and arrangement. He wants to pick up his paintbrush again. The path, finally, is open to him, whenever he’s ready for it.
“I’m not alone now,” he said. “ I have Nourishing Hope.”