Becoming homeless is something that could happen to just about anyone. Including me. When I see people who are homeless, it's very much a "There but for the grace of God go I" kind of thing for me. So, based on my own experiences and observations, I've assembled a plan for what I would do in the hypothetical situation that I ever became homeless in Champaign-Urbana. This would be the best plan for me, not necessarily for anyone else. This plan is purely pragmatic; there were no other criteria used in making it other than evaluating what would be my best bets for getting off the streets.
If I were, in fact, to become homeless, I may or may not actually achieve my goal of making it out, because it would be a very hard one, and I've failed at plenty of easier stuff in the past. A lot of unpleasant things could happen between here and there. I would want to live in an apartment again, as I do currently.
The first thing I'd do is turn to friends and family. If those options weren't available, I'd head straight to TIMES Center. Once there, if it was determined that I met the criteria for admittance and if the shelter wasn't full (it usually isn't), I'd be profoundly grateful, because I'd know that I'd hooked up with the best game in town for my own personal needs. If I was turned away from TIMES Center, the second place I'd try to get in would be Restoration Urban Ministries.
If admitted to TIMES Center, my most basic human needs would be met: food, shelter, and support from other humans. I'd now be in an environment where I could attempt the hard work of transitioning back to a more safe and secure living situation.
At the shelter, I'd do the chores assigned to me without causing any drama. I wouldn't complain if I was assigned one of the unpleasant ones— cleaning the bathroom, for instance. I'd make curfew at night and get up in the mornings at the designated time without complaining (at least not out loud). I'd volunteer for extra chores. This is something shelter residents frequently do, and it goes a long way towards building good will with the staff. Helping them would be a practical strategy for making them want to help me.
I'd show up early for all my scheduled meetings with my assigned recovery advocate— the staff employee in charge of my case. I'd try to do everything that he or she recommended, even if I didn't agree with every detail. If my advocate thought I had substance abuse problems and instructed me go to AA or NA meetings, that's where I'd go. I'd go however many times a week my recovery advocate required me to and bring back the attendance sheets showing that I'd actually gone. If he or she ordered me to attend any of the classes and workshops presented at the shelter by staff and by outside community members volunteering their time —on topics such as life-skills, anger management, or financial planning, to name a few— I'd be there. I'd even go to meetings that I wasn't required to, and that didn't really apply to me, if only to interact with the thoughtful and concerned community members who run them.
I would not drink or drug, because it's forbidden by the shelter for one thing, and because those behaviors would be a barrier to my goal of making it out of homelessness. If I happened to be suffering from a physical or mental disability —which would be a likely factor in my becoming homeless in the first place— I'd work with my recovery advocate to obtain assistance for it. This may or may not actually happen because obtaining assistance for physical or mental disabilities, however legitimate, is very difficult, but I'd have every confidence that my trained and committed recovery advocate would know where to look.
In the event that I had medical needs, given that I'd probably be uninsured, I'd —again— ask my recovery advocate for advice on obtaining medical care, and also personally visit the offices of Champaign County Health Care Consumers to take advantage of their many services and programs for the uninsured and disadvantaged residents of this community. My advocate and CCHCC might or might not be able to help me obtain whatever medical services I needed, because —as we all know— access to the medical system at every level in this community is difficult without insurance. But I'd know that they could do it if anyone could.
If I needed dental care, I'd again ask the people at Champaign County Health Care Consumers what I should do, knowing that if anyone could find me a local dentist willing to work with me it would be them. It's very possible that like many people in this community who are unable to afford dental care, I'd end up walking around in a great deal of physical pain in my mouth for a long time.
If I needed legal help in a civil case, I'd see if the Champaign Office of Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation could help me. I'd try to get an Illinois Link Card. I'd get a copy of Help Book, so as to have a better knowledge of opportunities for me through local social service agencies and be able to better work this system to my advantage.
If I was working, no matter how awful the job, I'd hold on to it like gold. Or try my hardest to. If I wasn't working, my job would be trying to find employment. I would loathe this process. I'd be grateful that I've never been convicted of any felonies, which would exclude me from all sorts of jobs, regardless of whether or not I'd served my debt to society and sincerely reformed.
If my recovery advocate told me to bring in evidence that I'd applied for ten different jobs that week, I'd try to bring in twenty.
I'd look into taking the free Certified Nurse Assistant training program available through Urbana Adult Education. Of course, I'd first have to be admitted; if let into the training program, I'd make every effort to complete it successfully and become a CNA. I've done this type of work before, which would be an advantage.
I'd be profoundly grateful during my job search that I have a college degree, an asset that the minority of people who are homeless I've met have had. I'd be profoundly grateful that I do have some marketable skills.
I'd recognize that the jobs most available to people who are homeless on short notice are almost always low-paying with the overwhelming possibility of also being some combination of dangerous, monotonous, disgusting and humiliating. If I was offered such a job, I'd take it and try to hold on to it like it was gold. If I was offered something better, I'd take it in a heartbeat. I'd recognize that having a job is not necessarily a ticket out of homelessness, and that having a job —even a good job— does not guarantee you from becoming homeless in the first place.
I'd hand over a percentage of whatever money I earned to the shelter, as I agreed to do when I was let in. The shelter would put my money in savings and give every penny back to me whenever and however I formally exited the program.
At the shelter, I'd try to socialize and network with residents who were positive and friendly, and avoid those who made me uneasy. I'd try to not project weakness in how I talked, stood or otherwise presented myself, so as to avoid uncool residents hassling me. Some residents, I wouldn't get to know at all, because they work long hours to save for their transition out and aren't at the shelter so much.
I would not be disrespectful to anyone at the shelter. If other people at the shelter were disrespectful to me, that would be a problem that I'm unable to say now how I'd deal with. Settling disputes with my fists wouldn't be an option for me, since fighting would get me in trouble with the facility. Taking it off the property wouldn't work either, because I'm a wuss— I'd just get beat up, unless the person I was fighting was either really small or totally out of it. If I was disrespected, the person dissing me would most likely be another resident and not a staff member.
At night, I'd sleep on a mat on the floor in the spot assigned to me. I'd sleep in my clothes. I'd be extremely careful about protecting my eyeglasses from getting damaged, especially if I didn't have a back-up pair, because they're expensive and I can't function without them. I'd hope that the guy next to me didn't snore, and that he followed the shelter rule of practicing good hygiene. I think I'd have a lot of trouble sleeping, especially at first, but residents do it, so probably I would, too, eventually.
Like many people who are homeless, I'd probably show up at the shelter with the clothes on my back and not much else. I'd have a locker to store things, but no personal space beyond that, so I'd have to be careful about what I tried to keep. I'd take advantage of the free washers and dryers provided for me. I'd wear a lot of clothes donated by thoughtful community members. I'd iron them for job interviews with the iron that the facility provides. I'd shave with razors and brush my teeth with toothbrushes donated by the same nice people who donated the clothes.
Like many people in this community who are homeless, if you saw me on the street, you'd have no idea of my situation. I would not panhandle, because, if I was caught, this activity would get me kicked out of TIMES Center; stealing, same reason.
I'd eat nutritious meals prepared in the kitchen run by staff, community members volunteering their time and by residents— some of whom are assigned to work there, others who volunteer to. I'd consume food donated by thoughtful local restaurants, and also food purchased by the shelter from a local food bank.
I'd be able to use the shelter phone for setting up job appointments and for emergencies. For personal calls, people would have to reach me at the pay phone at the facility. I'd use the shelter address to receive mail.
I'd be able to shower at the shelter. This would be an enormous advantage.
I'd probably walk just about everywhere I went. This would be unpleasant in rainy weather and would take up a lot of my time. During the winter, this situation would become more uncomfortable, and possibly dangerous, as the temperature plunged.
During daylight hours when I wasn't working or looking for work, I'd make an effort to leave the shelter area— if I wasn't sent out already by a staff member. My destination would probably be the Champaign Library. I go there all the time anyway.
I'd be thankful if I had a State ID Card and Drivers License. If I had lost these items during the period before I became homeless, I'd go through the torturous process of obtaining identification for someone who has no identification.
In the evenings, to pass the time and deal with the stress of being homeless and living in a shelter, I'd work on my chess game by playing other residents. I'd read books from the shelter library and talk about what I'd read with other shelter residents. I'd watch television with other residents during times that television watching was allowed. To access the Internet in order to look for work and also just to surf the web for fun like everyone else, I'd use my shelter address to get a library card and use the computers at the Champaign Public library for the amount of time per day allowed. Also on the Internet, I'd look for local events and meetings for me to attend in my spare time. I'd look for things that were free and had people.
I'd miss a lot of things from my previous life. I'd miss playing my piano, especially.
If I was in a relationship, I'd put it on the back burner until I got out of my predicament, or I'd abandon it. I lose my focus easily, and I wouldn't want the distraction. However —while local shelters don't allow couples— this doesn't have to end a relationship. A stay in a shelter is a temporary transition period, not a permanent living situation. When a couple goes to separate shelters, or when only one half of the couple goes to a shelter, it doesn't have to end a relationship any more than if one person in the relationship is required to leave town on business for a period of months. Couples can —and do— survive shelter stays. If you're a man staying at TIMES Center, you're free to see your significant other pretty much whenever you want other than at night after the shelter doors are closed to visitors.
I would not be ashamed of being homeless, because, as I've said, it can happen to about anyone.
I'd be profoundly grateful that I didn't have any children or dependents— if I did I'd be in a different scenario than the one I'm describing. If I was responsible for any pets at the time I entered the shelter, I'd have to either find someone to take care of them until I was able to again myself, or surrender them to an animal shelter. I would especially hate to have to do the latter.
I'd be at the shelter a while, months, but not over a year— transitioning out isn't something that can be rushed. The people who run the shelter understand this, and have set up the program accordingly. I'd either exit because A) through working with the shelter, I had acquired the savings, confidence and skills necessary to transition back into a more safe and secure living situation, B) I'd been told to leave for failing to meet the obligations and follow the rules that I agreed to when I was admitted.
In closing, I want to stress that this is the path I would try and follow to attempt to get out of homelessness in this community if it ever happened to me. I'm well aware that talk is cheap and that all of the above is easier said than done. In real life, I enjoy (through blind luck) many advantages that shield me from ever becoming homeless, but, yes it could happen to me— just as it probably could to you.
This piece describes what I imagine my life would be like if the scenario of me becoming homeless in C-U ever took place. This would be the best path for me personally and not necessarily anyone else who is currently, or who may one day become, homeless.
For a non-fiction account of a man who really did what I imagine myself attempting to do, see the section entitled "Successful Times" in my previous Smile Politely story "Keeping Up With The Times."
I am a former employee, and current volunteer, of TIMES Center. I have made every effort above to not misrepresent the work done at TIMES CENTER. I do not claim that my views are those of TIMES Center, its parent organization Mental Health Center, or anyone but myself. I am not representing anyone but myself.