Street Wise

By Julia Freeman & Tim Nedoba

Editor’s note: this is first in a multipart series.

Some people live in exile for a lifetime, others for a few years, for an Iowa man it was 11 months on the streets of Chicago that laid the framework for a life-changing chapter of a life story to be crafted.

In an exclusive interview with GoGuide Magazine, he shares the events that led up to his becoming homeless through no fault of his own as well as the role his now-friend played in helping him get off the streets. He now finds himself able to give back through sharing his journey, experience, and sometimes his spare cash with others in homeless shelters in Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin.

“Growing up, If I ate a piece of pie taken from the kitchen table, I got beat up by my stepfather.” This type of abuse was repetitive until he was nine; he is now 47 and asked to remain anonymous.

“I am the only one of my siblings that is gay and endured this abuse from my stepfather so despite growing up in the suburbs, eventually, I became a ward of the state of Illinois. I got placed in a group home where I was the only white kid. This situation was a new experience for me. I eventually embraced my new family and developed several close friendships.” Later in life, he learned that one of his closest friends had died of a heroin overdose. He never got the chance to say goodbye.

“My school experience was horrible. The teaching was designed for the level of the ‘lowest’ person in the group, so I never reached any high school level education. I did graduate from junior high and was placed in Jane Adams Hull House until the age of 21 when I aged out of the system and found myself alone and homeless on the streets. I didn’t have a family home in which I could return. I spent 11 consecutive months on the streets.” He slept on various park benches, under playground slides, and any other safe place he sees.

The youth group home helped prepare him on how to carry himself. It didn’t prepare him for finding a permanent home or a safe place to sleep.

In the winter months, there were available shelters. During the summer months, it was much different with most shelters closed. Finding a safe place to sleep wasn’t always easy. In many cases, he had to use his “street smarts” to find a place to stay and possibly get a meal. This meant finding a “friend” to take him home for the night. This was, of course, very dangerous and often the night’s outcome wasn’t what he wanted or expected. As a result, he was forced to “sleep around.” Often spending each night with a different person. His lack of education did hinder him in discovery about gay culture, which he regrets having to learn later on. Of course, there were always the bathhouses, but they required money.

At age 24 he was shocked to learn that he was HIV positive. In 1995 at a routine doctors appointment a liver test was needed before he could start on an acne medication. Instead of learning whether or not he could start taking Accutane he instead learned that he had the virus that caused AIDS. He was HIV positive. This was still a death sentence in the mid-1990s. “I was scared, and I didn’t know where to turn,” he said.

He believes he was infected at a Chicago bathhouse in 1992. He wasn’t willing to divulge information on how he was able to trace it back to that year given that he probably had several potential exposures.

Although he generally never asked for help because he didn’t know how and was embarrassed. “I firmly believe that many people do not have to be homeless if they don’t want to be. I now know that nobody is homeless-proof, just like nobody is bulletproof, and that it could happen again,”

During his time on the streets, he also became a larger music fan because he could relate to being homeless in many ways through the lyrics of his favorite songs and artists. His primary advice is “to not give up or let bad things keep you down. You never know when the right friend will show up at the right time.”

Comunity Resourcses

More than 25% of former foster children become homeless within four years of exiting the foster care system. There are an estimated 5,000 people nationally that are adult products of the foster care system, all lost in the transition from child to adult classification. The rates are even higher in the LGBTQ community.

A lack of resources and appropriate education are aspects of life that many exiting a group home and foster care placements face in joining the larger adult world without adequate support systems. The majority of people that are homeless experience shame and embarrassment about their living circumstances that prevent them from asking for help directly from loved ones; therefore, a novel support system is formed from community resources.

There are community resources available for persons seeking support services such as employment, housing, and mental health recovery.

Much of the regional resources are divvied for adults, especially veterans, with few for youth. Many of these shelters or programs are faith-based, seem too much like charity to those receiving support, and lack critical elements as outlined in part one of this feature.

In Linn County, Willis Dady Homeless Services provides emergency shelter, while Waypoint is the central intake hub of resources and has an associated refuge.

In Iowa City, the largest city of Johnson County, organizations such as Shelter House and Hawkeye Area Community Action Program and United Action for Youth provide the general public with dualistic prevention and intervention forms of assistance. This is not an all-inclusive list of temporary shelter and housing support for either county.

The majority of emphasis across Iowa is a “housing first” model focused on homelessness prevention and emergency shelter for residents in need of such assistance regardless of the season. Notably, the subject of part one of this series faced a history which took a toll on his psyche and mental wellbeing. Within Johnson County, beyond the counseling departments of educational institutions for students, organizations such as UAY provide counseling for young (12-23) people and Crisis Center of Johnson County also help with furnishing and connecting people with mental health assistance. They each also have housing and social service case management branches. This comprehensive, all under one roof structure helps in connecting people without adequate transportation or resources to be assisted. Foundation 2 offers individual and group/family counseling to youth shelter occupants. They also serve all of Linn County in providing mental health services, including those in crises.

Statistically, homelessness amplifies poor mental health outcomes across diagnoses. HIV, for example, is more common in people that have high levels of psychological distress. Atop the threat of health, there are also factors of safety and security that plague many people that are homeless due to high volume and traffic within the shelter. Conversely, people with mental health challenges are more susceptible to personal vulnerability, disaffiliation, and poverty; thus their chances of homelessness risk increases. Therefore why organizational partnerships and collaboration seek to create supportive and non-threatening atmospheres to combat both afflictions and solve the crisis directly.