For 10 years, once a month, I would leave my comfortable bed at 4:45 a.m., drive through the winter slush to a local Jewish temple, and schlep mattress pads off the floor where 50 homeless guys had snored the night away in warmth and awkward camaraderie.
I did it not out of a soaring sense of compassion for the hapless poor of American society, though those feelings did warm me on those frigid mornings, but because my friend Jerry Levine, oil industry lobbyist and book reviewer extraordinaire for Today’s Machining World, suggested I do it. The volunteers used to go out for breakfast after the homeless men were out the door, some headed to jobs, many meandering down the streets to the local McDonald’s or White Castle to idle their lonely days away.
Today I will celebrate the official opening of the PADS Permanent Facility for the Homeless in Country Club Hills, Ill., a $20 million dollar permanent site where the homeless, evicted, displaced folks seeking shelter can find a safe place to stay temporarily–maybe several months–and hopefully pull their messy lives together.
After my heart attack four years ago, I stopped doing my monthly shelter stint, but Jerry and I continued having breakfast regularly. He has given me an insider’s view of how this testament to the best of America’s spirit of volunteerism and charity somehow survived the venality of American political infighting and the sloppiness of Government bureaucracy to somehow pull the money together for this amazing edifice for the poor of the South Suburbs of Chicago.
I know the project would never have been built without Jerry’s untiring effort and unshakable belief in the need for shelter for the sad, tortured and often just luckless among us.
Of the 20 or so towns in the area, exactly none of them wanted a permanent homeless shelter in their community. “Not in my backyard” was the view of the local mayors. For almost 15 years, the shelter volunteers talked up various sites, but nobody would take a chance on their local political future to advocate for a group that had no clout and probably didn’t even vote.
But four years ago, a bizarre event that could never be anticipated took place. Dwight Welsh, a white mayor, in a virtually all black town, Country Club Hills, had an epiphany. His mother was dying and he claims that on her deathbed she told him to build the homeless shelter in his town. Crazy story, but Welsh made it his mission to fulfill his mother’s dying wish. He needed a plot of land to be donated that was big enough and accessible by public transportation. And it had to be isolated enough so neighbors wouldn’t go nuts about the structure killing their property values.
And Walsh knew he had the perfect piece of ground for the project. A developer wanted to build an outlet mall on a strategic parcel near two Interstate highways in the village. The owner of the property, a wealthy black funeral home operator, needed to keep Dwight Welsh happy if the Outlet Mall was ever going to be built. Dwight cajoled three acres out of him and then the race began for the government money to build the project. If you had the land and the permits, the money was out there in various government vaults if you knew how to work the bureaucracies that controlled it. Jerry told me that there were consultants who made a career out of playing the game of unlocking government money. When you find the right consultants, lawyers, architects and politicians you can stitch together the funds if you have the site.
Today, the local politicians converged on the brand new 5-story building sitting in the prairie next to the Interstates, within walking distance of my office, for a ribbon cutting ceremony.
The local shelters in the churches and temples are still needed but now there is finally a port in the storm for the homeless people to hopefully repair their lives. For my friend Jerry Levine, it is the culmination of a good man’s effort to help people few of us really care about. For the local Mayor, Dwight Welch, it’s the validation of his mother’s wish.
Does the American political system work? Every once in a great while – yes – it does.
Question: Is helping the homeless a proper function of government?