It was one of those eerily quiet Sunday mornings. The sun had barely risen over the brick buildings that formed Hyde Park Village, but the air already hung in a thick haze. The world stood still. I wandered down the street with my coffee in hand, immersed in my phone as I so often am.
Waiting to cross the street, I heard a voice behind me. It startled me back to reality. I turned around to see a woman that I hadn’t noticed before. She was leaning back against a building that so starkly contrasted her own appearance. Her green floral shirt was laced with dirt, her hair was slicked back from sweat, her feet were bare, her weathered hands lifted a cigarette to her mouth.
“What is this neighborhood called?” she repeated.
“Hyde Park,” I replied with a smile.
As I turned to walk away, she said something that struck my heart.
“It’s so quiet here,” she said. “It’s almost as if time is standing still. Time is man-made, you know. We create these schedules.”
I stared intently into her eyes and saw a person for the first time. Not a homeless person, or a crazy person, just a person. Not knowing what to say, I just stood there. It opened up the door for her story to be told.
“I’m homeless again by choice,” she said with tears in her eyes.
“Why?” I inquired.
The answer? A gap in the system. She had graduated from DACCO, a city-run drug rehabilitation program, but was left with nowhere to go. It’s a program designed to keep drug offenders out of jail.
The idea is that they recover, graduate from the program, and become productive members of society. If only it were that simple.
What the program fails to address is what happens once these people “graduate”. What happens when someone has nowhere to go? Sometimes they’ll ask for help, sometimes they’ll have family and friends willing to step in, sometimes they’ll go to a halfway house.
Other times they end up like Maria, on the streets. Maria has no family willing to stand by her. A series of bad choices left her utterly alone, except for the friends she found at DACCO. Now, she sat on the streets of Hyde Park lost and afraid.
Those nine months, she told me, were some of the best in her life. She had hope and happiness, and now she once again had nothing. Aside from required follow-up visits, the gap in the system left her in the same place she was nine months before: hopeless.
I sat there and drank coffee with her as she told her story. Abandon, heartbreak, abuse, addiction, denial, self-hatred. To her, the world seemed a cold and lonely place destined to bring her nothing but heartache and agony. The church had turned its back on her, too. She saw it as a place of judgment and free food.
I wanted so badly to tell her that everything would be okay, but where was she supposed to go? Her meager belongs sat scattered on the sidewalk, she had no education, a criminal record and minimal experience. She had no money for somewhere to stay, and no way to get a job. Google her name and you’re told a story before you ever look into her dark brown eyes. The system had failed.
From religion to government, this woman had been left without hope or recourse. Society washed its hands of her, labeled her a criminal, an addict, a drain to the economy. Now she had a new label: homeless.
What I saw was a woman whom society had failed. Our court systems, our drug rehabs, our churches and our community had let another good person fall through the cracks. I did not look at her labels, I looked into her eyes. She came from a broken home, a broken life and a broken system. Every disadvantage was placed at her feet, and when she tried to pick up the pieces, she was left with a dead end.
This woman asked me for nothing. She didn’t want money, all she wanted was to be okay.
[My non-profit, Recovery Epicenter, works to reduce gaps in the system like this one. Please visit online to learn how you can get involved.]