Dec 23, 2011

Jake Maguire's picture Posted By Jake Maguire

In Illinois, a Holiday Housing Miracle

When Melany Jackson felt God calling her to end homelessness, she quit her job, sold everything she owned and got to work. This week, she moved her first homeless neighbor into housing.

"It's almost hard to believe it's true," Jackson wrote in an email, calling the story of Vern, her newly housed friend, a "Christmas housing miracle."

Indeed, much of Vern's story seems miraculous.

An Army veteran and former restaurant cook, he has spent the last eight years on the streets of Champaign-Urbana, IL, battling illness and alcoholism in his fight to survive. Last October, Jackson organized 80 volunteers to conduct a Campaign Registry Week in the town, where they combed the streets block-by-block for three mornings in a row to identify the most vulnerable homeless people among them. Vern topped the list.

But identifying Vern's needs was only the first step. This past April, Jackson launched a new organization, C-U at Home, with no funding and no staff. While other housing programs have had years to build up important relationships with foundation and secure federal housing vouchers,  Jackson has been forced to operate on faith and the hope that her community would rally if she could show them the way.

Thankfully, that's exactly what happened.

Last Tuesday, just in time for Christmas, Vern moved into a small, one-bedroom home for the first time in 8 years. The home was donated rent-free by a local couple, on the condition that C-U at Home raise funds to pay the utilities. Meanwhile, a retired social worker has volunteered to draft a care plan for Vern, and a local church man has committed to be his "advocate", meeting with him regularly as he works to secure identification, attend AA meetings for alcoholism, find a stable job and readjust to living inside. 

As for Jackson, she has gathered a team of volunteers around her, each of whom is dedicated to developing a permanent solution to homelessness in Champaign-Urbana. The team even meets monthly for dinner and community, funded and hosted by the local First Christian Church.

The unique, community-driven process that housed Vern is proof that supportive housing can happen in all kinds of ways, and that most people instinctively know how to take care of one another when it counts. C-U at Home's Registry Week put real names and faces on homelessness in Champaign-Urbana. Stories like Vern's have since become much more difficult to ignore.

So what's next for Jackson and C-U at Home? Jackson has thrown her hat in for a number of grants that would help her hire a small staff and begin working full time to house her homeless neighbors. She has also identified eleven more individuals as immediate priorities and hopes to move them into housing soon. For now, she says she is glad to have helped at least one friend begin a new life.

"I'm looking forward to that zero on the map for Champaign-Urbana changing to a one," she says.

Consider it done!

Happy Holidays!