Goshen News, Goshen, IN

Local News

September 9, 2013

Helping the homeless: Local outreach to Chicago has expanded back home

NAPPANEE — There aren’t five people in the organization Chicago and Michiana Five for the Homeless based in Nappanee. Instead, the name is a call to action, according to the organization’s founder John Shafer.

Shafer explained it was fueled by a Christmas shopping trip to Chicago last fall he and roommate Rodney Rabel made. “After 10 p.m. as we wandered the streets we noticed a large number of people sleeping on the sidewalk, bedded down for the night. Many just had a coat and were huddled up against the storefront — some had a bottom blanket and I thought, ‘What about when it gets really cold?’ There were these people sleeping right on the sidewalk and people were just passing by.”

Shafer felt like he couldn’t just pass by. “But I thought, ‘What can I do as one person?’ If nothing else on the next trip I could take 25 blankets.”

They planned a return trip to Chicago and passed out those blankets. They came across a mother and three children on one of the bridges and each one received a blanket.

“The mother was very thankful we were there and very appreciative that we gave them each a blanket,” Shafer said.

The experience made him think, “If there’s 3 million people in the city of Chicago and each one gave $5 — that would be 15 million to help shelter the homeless. It would be a significant help to get $5 from everyone and they wouldn’t even miss it.”

That’s where the name Chicago Five for the Homeless originated. As the ministry expanded to this area — South Bend, Elkhart and Warsaw — Michiana was added to the name. The two men are in the organization “and a lot of dedicated volunteers,” Shafer said.

Shafer said thankfully they don’t see a lot of children living on the streets, but there are a lot of disabled veterans and students.

According to Shafer, there are 25,000 unattended youth in Chicago going to school and college while homeless. There are 166,000 homeless in Chicago alone — that they know of. He said in 2002 Chicago came up with a 10-year plan for the homeless. “And here it is 2013,” he said, “and not a lot’s been done to keep the plan active or re-address the issue.”

Many people feel there are plenty of shelters, but in reality they have to turn away more than they take in.

“People are sleeping in alleys, trash cans, doorways, park benches — anywhere,” he said.

He said as word gets out about what they are doing and their efforts have been published and televised, “It enables us to receive donations that we distribute to seven different shelters regularly.”

Locally, the South Bend Center for the Homeless is a major recipient — they’ve made 12 to 15 trips there. Elkhart Faith Mission has also been a beneficiary several times. Fellowship Mission in Warsaw is another local shelter that receives regular donations as do several local churches, including David’s House Church in South Bend, Shepherd’s Cove in Elkhart, Crossbar Ministries and Broadway United Methodist Church in South Bend.

Because of its growth, the organization became incorporated as a non-profit business with the state of Indiana in January.

In Chicago, they mainly work directly on the streets and Shafer will always remember that defining moment in November. “On that first night in November I stood back and watched the number of people who ignored the homeless,” he said. “Out of a hundred in two hours, we’re lucky if two-three responded. They are treated as invisible. Chicago’s become immune to this daily situation. We felt being from Indiana this was something we could not ignore and turn a blind eye to.”

“Many homeless in Chicago are so overwhelmed with surprise and joy they give us hugs — thankful for giving them basic necessities,” he said. “Their expressions and hugs of gratitude are so moving and touching. that encourages us that what we’re doing is a vital need to the homeless on the streets.”

Misconceptions and fears

Shafer said that many individuals hold the concept that the homeless are just lazy and don’t want to work.

“Life on the streets is so rigorous and dangerous — no one would choose that life — if given an opportunity they’d definitely take it,” he said.

Many people don’t have awareness of the obstacles getting in the way of the homeless getting a job, including not having a residence and a phone to get call backs, he said. Many don’t have a current ID — all requirements for a job application. They can’t get government assistance without an address or an ID.

Another common misconception is that if you give the homeless money they’ll just buy drugs or alcohol.

“That’s generally far from the truth,” Shafer said. “First they want the basic food and water for the day. However, if buying a bottle of alcohol means they survive the day. We don’t deny an adult a drink why deny the homeless a moment to forget their struggles?”

Shafer said he doesn’t advocate alcohol or drug use but understands if a drink helps them forget their troubles for a moment and he hopes the money would benefit them instead with food and water.

“It is not my place to judge where an individual in need is going to use the money — on food or toiletries or clothes. It is up to them to use it as they have need,” he said. “It’s not my place to judge. My job is to reach out and offer help and assistance. That shows it’s coming from the heart, that the help is genuine and we trust them in their actions.”

Shafer said people have also asked him if he’s fearful of being robbed and attacked and the answer is no. “These are everyday, normal people down on their luck,” he said. “I’ve only received gratitude from kind-hearted people down on their luck.”

Shafer related an encounter with one man in his 50s who, after giving him a bag filled with basic necessities for the day, said something he’ll never forget.

“He said, ‘I’ve been wandering the streets down here for nine hours. Not one person stopped to speak to me. Thank you. You are the first to stop and talk to me, to ask ‘How are you doing?’ and offer help.’ We felt that was very sad in a city of thousands,” Shafer said. “We encountered many veterans and people in wheelchairs — disabled vets should never be homeless.”

Shafer has lived in Michiana all his life but moved to Nappanee about six years ago when Rabel invited him to move in to share expenses and it was closer to where he was working at the time. He then worked at Notre Dame and just retired in July due to health issues. Now he travels all over Michiana picking up and delivering donations. They’ve outgrown using their apartment for storage and are about to outgrow their 10-by-10-foot storage unit.

In April, the group teamed up with Southwest Airlines in Chicago to hold a four-week clothing drive spearheaded by 5th Ward Democrat Raymond Lopez, who Shafer said has also hit the streets with them to distribute clothes and turned his office into a collection site.

On recent trips they’ve taken people to help cover the miles of sidewalks and then take the rest of the items to a park where the homeless gather.

Shafer said, “Although it’s difficult to be on my feet for extended periods of time because of my health issues, this keeps going and growing because of the many helpers and supporters we have.”

He’s thought about sometime renting an electric scooter so he could get around the streets himself and hand out bags.

“With what limitations I have it has been my mission to not let it hinder me — even if someday I have to do it from a wheelchair,” Shafer said.

On The Internet

For more information, visit the Facebook page at www.Facebook.com/ChicagoFivefortheHomeless. Or email John Shafer at joeinmish@yahoo.com. They will have a booth at the upcoming Nappanee Apple Festival, too.

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