On the last day of the Zero:2016 Action Camp in Denver, I received a small plastic soldier. I was to take the soldier back with me as a reminder of the personal commitment I was making to ending veteran homelessness. The commitment seemed like it should be easy enough. My dad and his brothers had served in the military, so the issue of veteran homelessness felt personal. As the other attendees took their soldiers back with them to one of the many communities represented at the camp, I brought mine back to Chicago Heights, Illinois.
Chicago Heights is nicknamed “The Crossroads of the Nation,” as it is where the Lincoln Highway and the Dixie Highway, the first two U.S. transcontinental highways, intersect. The house where I grew up is a few miles north of the intersection. Located a few blocks east of the intersection is Respond Now, where I had been serving as a VISTA for about nine months before I attended the Zero:2016 Action Camp. At Respond Now, I worked on building the capacity of the organization’s housing counseling and homelessness prevention services. Part of my work also included representing the organization on the SubCook Zero:2016 Committee. The SubCook Zero:2016 committee worked to resolve issues for homeless clients to get them housed faster, and to build a system that makes instances of homelessness rare and brief. The committee was part of a nationwide campaign to end veteran homelessness by December, 2015 and chronic homelessness by December, 2016. In June of 2015, with the goal of ending veteran homelessness less than six months away, I joined members of the SubCook committee at the Zero:2016 Action Camp in Denver.
The Action Camp was for representatives from communities across the country to come together to share ideas drawn from their experience in order to meet the goal of effectively ending veteran homelessness by the end of the year. At the time of the Action Camp, my experience working to end homelessness was around nine months, so I could mainly offer enthusiasm and the commitment I made as a VISTA to end poverty in my community. However, the circumstances of poverty and homelessness in the suburbs of Chicago made it seem that any enthusiasm and commitment I had would never be enough.
As Scott Allard, a professor of public policy at the University of Washington, said in a recent article in the City Lab blog, “The increasing number of poor people in suburbs is about three times the rate of population growth. That means that there are lots of people who have lived in suburbs for a long time who either have been poor, or who have fallen into poverty over time.” I knew about the steady increase in poverty in my own community, just through the closed businesses and abandoned houses I would see growing up. It seemed that everyday there was another reminder that what I was being asked to do was impossible. However, at Respond Now and with the SubCook Zero:2016 Committee, I saw that no matter the obstacle, people were determined to keep moving forward and help as many people as possible. As homelessness was not a single individual’s, agency’s, or even community’s problem, it was not a problem a single individual, agency, or community could solve. For the rest of my VISTA service, the soldier I received in Denver was in my desk as I worked on programs at Respond Now that placed several individuals and families from all over the area in homes. Even though my role in ending their homelessness was small compared to the case managers and outreach workers who worked directly with the individuals and families, I was helping to make progress to reach the goal of ending veteran and chronic homelessness.
While my commitment to ending poverty in my community did not change, what did change was my definition of community. For me, my community had expanded beyond Chicago Heights to include all of the communities in Illinois working to end homelessness. I wanted to become a VISTA Leader to gain the skills to make a greater impact in ending homelessness, as well as support the organizations and individuals that inspired me to believe in the power of a commitment.
Veteran and chronic homelessness did not end in December of 2016. However, some communities in Illinois have already effectively ended veteran homelessness, including Rockford, in December of 2015, and Will County in July of 2017. In Cook County, the SubCook team ended 22 years of homelessness in May of 2017 alone. The soldier that I received in 2015 has traveled with me to cities all over Illinois in my current role as a VISTA Leader. It remains a reminder that ending homelessness is possible, but only as a community, and that my community includes all of Illinois.
— Brandon Grigsby, AmeriCorps VISTA Leader at Housing Action Illinois