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Experiencing Hesed

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The date was June 27th, 2017. It was my first experience at Hesed House in Aurora, Illinois. To say that I was excited would be an understatement.  I had been in the clinic seminar for approximately one hour, and I was ready to get to work. Not to work for pay, because I chose the unpaid Health Advocacy Clinic for the summer over a paid internship at a law office. I was ready to go to work, helping others who may not be able to hire private attorneys. I chose my passion. The beginning of my experience and one that I will never forget was my tour of Hesed House’s overnight shelter and transitional living quarters. The tour started in the lobby of Hesed House where a friendly volunteer answered phone calls and greeted guests and ended in the bright room of the Transitional Living Community where families sign up to spend quality time with their children in a warm and playful environment.

I entered this experience and environment with an open mind and really tried to come with no assumptions. However, it isn’t often that you can really enter any situation completely free of assumptions or expectations. I realized that I did have some assumptions that I brought with me and later realized my experience didn’t match them. My biggest assumption was that I wouldn’t have an emotional reaction because I had been to many shelters before Hesed House. I had even volunteered at one to do guest registration and dispense personal hygiene items. Although I knew that I would be empathetic, I thought that I would be better able to keep my emotions in check.

During the tour I was learning a lot of information about Hesed House and how they operated; the intake process and guest requirements and their wide range of volunteers. I had an instant reaction. When I was walking through the hallway leaving the kitchen and entering the laundry room where guests were folding clothing, for a quick second I stopped being an observer. I stopped watching and learning about their home. I allowed myself to release a little and become human. I figured that was the only time where a guest wouldn’t see the emotion on my face. They wouldn’t assume, by my reaction, that I was judging them and subsequently judge me. My heart was breaking for the guests. My thought was that no one should have to sleep on pads on the floor in a room filled with people. There is no privacy and there is only room for very few personal possessions. I was sad because the children couldn’t grow up in a home of their own with their personal beds and toys. I couldn’t understand why the guests smiled as they greeted us in the kitchen and why the guests folding laundry did it with no complaints. I knew that I felt a wide a wide range of emotions in response to what I was seeing, but I didn’t understand these emotions very well.

It wasn’t until I was driving home that I began to process all my feelings. I didn’t understand why I almost cried while touring Hesed House. It made me question my internal reactions. Although I was almost crying, I realized that I wasn’t sad or upset at all. They were happy tears. Through Hesed House, many volunteers and staff members have given these guests and families a second chance as well as a safe place to live.  Above all, they have been given a reason to smile despite their circumstances. I learned that all tears aren’t tears of sadness, even when you don’t initially realize they are tears of joy. I’m so thankful I was given an opportunity to be a part of this experience and add to the resources that are available at Hesed House.


Nothing Takes the Place of Preparation

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NIU Law students participating in the Health Advocacy Clinic (HAC) typically spend one or two semesters at the clinic. One of HAC’s goals is to provide law students with practical legal experience during their time in law school. The high law student turnover means that the HAC Director must be creative to ensure that students have the opportunity to work on client cases as much as possible during their short time at the HAC. When students arrive at the beginning of the semester, client cases, usually involving the denial of Social Security disability benefits, are at various stages of development. Some cases are just beginning while others are weeks away from the long-awaited Social Security administrative law judge hearing. How is this high law student turn over and case development dilemma resolved? It is solved by assigning students to new, ongoing, or concluding client cases within days of arrival at the clinic and working to quickly prepare students to perform their assigned tasks at a high level of competency.

From a law student perspective, peak moments in Social Security cases are the beginning (i.e. the “client intake interview”) and conclusion of the case (i.e. the Social Security “hearing” in front of an administrative law judge). Within the first three weeks at HAC, I was assigned to conduct a client intake interview while one of my fellow law students was assigned to represent a client at an upcoming hearing.

A slight nervousness washed over me as I walked into my first client intake interview, the room occupied by only the client, the HAC Director, a table, and a few chairs. I found comfort in the familiarity of the table and chairs; the most stable objects in the dynamic room during the minutes ahead. Their familiarity served as an anchor from one unpredictable question or conversation to the next. If my client answers X, then Y; if W, then Z; if ?, then ?. The uncertainty was unsettling. My goal was to project a calm outward appearance to mask my internal uncertainty. I was successful for the most part.

The following week my fellow law student represented a client at a hearing. She found solace at her hearing not only in the familiar desks and chairs of the room, but in the familiarity of her client and the HAC Director. She’d worked with both individuals closely in the days leading up to the hearing. She had more nervousness to cope with than I had when I sat across from a new client during our intake interview. She sat across from an unfamiliar and authoritative judge who sat elevated and who’d soon decide her client’s case. We’d both started the same date—her case was concluding, mine was beginning. Though we were both well prepared for our peak moments, our nervousness still existed despite our preparation.

Preparation—unseen, but very real—was a calming force in both our rooms, being actively drawn on by each of us for guidance. Preparation was there to remind us, roughly: what comes next? And next? And next? Preparation subdued some of our nervousness and anxiety. The stakes for HAC clients are significant, for many it means a new outlook on life, which students are aware of during representation. Prior to their time at the clinic, most HAC students have no legal experience. This means that some nervousness in the consequential moments described above will always be present and will never be completely shaken by familiar objects in the room or weeks or months of preparation, but only by experience.

Advocating with Empathy

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My second day at the clinic, I met with a client. She became emotional when discussing the passing of a loved one, even though it had happened a while ago. Having had a similar experience recently, and a much different reaction, I was shocked that she reacted the way she did.

My oldest sister died this past spring. When it happened, it was almost the furthest thing from my mind. I was preparing for exams. I wasn’t sleeping well. I was just trying to get through one day at a time. On the day my sister passed, I was still awake at 5 a.m. when my mother called me. I had no idea why she was calling me so early. Through tears, my mom told me about her death. I can’t even say it was unexpected. My focus was on the exam I had to take in four hours. I’m fairly certain I even said something about still going to take the exam and not bothering going to Michigan to see my sister, albeit just her body, one last time. I ended up rescheduling the exam and going to Michigan, but my initial reaction was to do what I had to do.

While meeting with Client, she talked about the death of a loved one. During the interview, she was emotional while speaking about it. Given that it happened that long ago, I was taken aback. I’m two months removed from losing my sister and even upon hearing about my sister’s passing, I was apathetic, let alone after a lot of time has passed.

The way I grew up, my family faced a number of issues, and because of which, I identify with a lot of the issues and problems seen throughout the HAC client base. As a result, I feel like I know what a lot of the client base is going through. For someone to react to the passing of a loved one in a way I wouldn’t is surprising to me. Since she and I had dissimilar reactions, I feel it’s important to keep everything in perspective. No two people are exactly the same, regardless of background. Given that I could feel myself relating to the client’s story, I was amazed that our reactions to the death of loved ones would be almost opposite. How somebody reacts to a certain event isn’t always because of the situation they’re in or their experiences. Sometimes it’s just how they react to that type of event.

Recognizing that people’s reactions vary can be an important part of being an advocate, because their reactions can help us understand their situation. I guess at the clinic, we have adopted the saying “expect the unexpected.” I didn’t expect the client to react the way she when discussing her family member’s death. However, maybe her feelings gave some insight into her past and could help explain how she ended up where she is today. Keeping in mind that we, as people, experience the same world in different ways, may allow us to understand why clients want our help in the first place. If something is important to a client, despite our own contrasting thoughts or feelings, as their advocate, it should also be important to us. While we should always expect the unexpected, we should also embrace the unexpected, because you never know what it can tell us.

How Stress Impacts HAC Clients

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The Health Advocacy Clinic (HAC) is a medical-legal partnership with Aunt Martha’s Health and Outreach Center as well as Hesed House, the second largest homeless shelter in Illinois. Most of our clients are homeless. The ones who are not consist of low-income members of the community who struggle with poverty. Whether our clients stay in public housing or at Hesed House, they share one thing in common: their lives are stressful in a way that many of us cannot begin to comprehend.

HAC clients frequently experience stress trying to secure basic needs such as shelter, food, and safety. The effects of such stress can have long-term effects on their bodies and overall health. “The longer the stress lasts, the worse it is for both your mind and body.”1 Many of our clients are considered chronically homeless, which requires that they have been homeless for at least a year or have been homeless at least four times within the last three years and have a disability, and have therefore been subjected to the harmful effects of chronic stress.2 Although Hesed House provides its guests with a safe place to spend the night and three meals a day, guests are on their own during the day. Walking the streets of Aurora, they may become victims of crimes that threaten their safety simply because of their status as a homeless person. If they are disabled, physically or mentally, they may be perceived to be less likely to fight back during a physical attack, robbery, or sexual assault. Additionally, guests may be unable to find stable employment, which will prevent them from earning the funds necessary to escape homelessness.

The HAC works to secure Social Security Disability benefits for our disabled clients. Our work is necessary because of the strong link between homelessness and disabling conditions. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, “people living in shelters are more than twice as likely to have a disability, compared to the general population.”3 Even if a client’s disabling condition did not cause their homelessness, the condition certainly was not improved due to the chronic stress the homeless face. For example, a client of the HAC came to Hesed House with back pain problems. After having to spend every night sleeping on a mat on the floor, his back pain has become so severe that he walks with a cane and is being referred for spinal surgery. The disabling condition does not have to be physical; mental illness can be worsened by the stress of homelessness as well. A former client of the HAC struggled daily with managing several mental health diagnoses while staying at Hesed House. Now that she has been granted Social Security Disability benefits and was able to move into her own apartment, she is able to function in society much easier.

At the HAC, a student will learn the relationship between chronic stress and medical conditions. They will see how a controllable disease such as asthma or high blood pressure can be worsened to the point of disability by the chronic stress associated with homelessness. For HAC clients pursuing Social Security Disability, the condition must be disabling enough that the client will be unable to work for 12 months or more. A law student can attest to the fact that stress can have a negative impact on the human body, but it is the HAC clients who can show you how devastating chronic stress can be on every aspect of the human life: physical, psychological, and emotional.



What a Disability Award Means for a Client

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“James” is client of the Health Advocacy Client who was recently awarded SSI benefits. This includes both a monthly payment and a larger award of back payments which will be paid out over several installments. As the Associate Director of Housing and Supportive Services at Hesed House, I act as his case manager.

James began staying at Hesed House in April 2012. He became a Lighthouse client in December 2014 which means that he lives in an apartment in the Aurora community as part of our long-term, permanent supportive living program.

When he was staying at Hesed, James was always getting sick because of his many health conditions. He is doing better now that he is staying in his own apartment. He even comes back and volunteers at Hesed when he physically can. Also, he’s very active in the Lighthouse community, especially by acting as a mentor for the younger residents which is beneficial for us as well.

One of James’s goals since I first met him when he started staying at Hesed was to pay off his many traffic tickets so that he could get his driver’s license back. Since he does not have a driver’s license, James has to rely on other people and public transportation. With his extreme health conditions, the reasons he was approved for disability, he has to see a lot of doctors and physical therapists. Relying on other people and public transportation to get to his appointments costs James a lot of money. Public transportation posed its own set of issues. Meals at Hesed are served at a set time and he would end up missing dinner because of how long the buses would take to get him back. At times, it seemed like James had to choose between his health or his sanity, and I don’t think anyone should ever have to make that choice. Once he gets his license back, it will be much easier to manage his health and his appointments.

The steady stream of income will be life-changing for James. He will be able to live a non-homeless life where he doesn’t have to worry about if the food pantry will have enough food for him. Now he will have money for groceries, especially fresh food, that will be more beneficial to his health. He’s also going to be able to afford cable, which is a big deal for him because he is a huge sports fan. He can be social and go out to eat now too. He can afford to buy laundry soap with the scents he wants, not just use the ones that are donated. These are things that people who are not homeless take for granted, but things that James has never had because of the uncertainty of his life.

I am so happy for James to finally be able to spend money, an ability he has never had before. However, he is worried about spending it in the right way since this is new for him, but I have assured him that I am willing to ease him into his new life. He finally feels like he is set on his path in life. James has a great support system here at Hesed between the case managers, staff, and other agencies, including the NIU Health Advocacy Clinic. It has been wonderful to see his life be completely changed for the better.


Hollie Nilles-Ohme, Associate Director of Housing and Supportive Services at Hesed House

Technology as an Opportunity for Change

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Over the past several months, I have had the opportunity to briefly meet a number NIU HAC clients.  One Friday morning, I noticed that there was an older lady, with a piece of luggage, just sitting in the woods.  Later that day, I realized that this person was one of our clients and felt sad that she was sitting in the woods, all by herself on a cold Friday morning.  During our meeting with that client, and other clients since, I have been impressed with the fact that our clients are intelligent, personable, and capable.  In addition, I have come to the conclusion that we, as a society, could be doing so much more to help those who are homeless and in need.  We should explore how we can empower our clients to take advantage of all of their talents.  Specifically, there are ways to leverage technology and to teach practical skills that are in demand, such as bookkeeping and coding.

Almost everyone in America has attended school (at least through the second year of high school).  In addition, our clients have an abundance of life experiences.  I am worried that many of them are not taking advantage of opportunities that life offers, because they are living day-to-day and just trying to get by.  When I see residents of Hesed House in the park, I wonder if even a few would be interested in furthering their education and developing marketable skills, especially in technology, as the internet has created many new possibilities for people to work remotely and as independent contractors.  While this may not be realistic, I want to help.

I realize that there is much that I do not know.  However, I remain optimistic because our clients are just like you and I in the sense that they want to be happy.  I truly believe that if one is to be happy, one must feel as if they are being challenged, engaged, and adding to the greater good of society

Based on past experiences, military and civilian, I believe that when others are given access and opportunity that great things can happen.  For example, when I was in Afghanistan, I was moved by the courage of so many young children to try to make a better life for themselves and their families – they gave me hope.  Likewise, I know that organizations like Hesed House and our clinic, add value in so many ways to those in need. Therefore, my take away from my own experiences in life is that we can do even more.

I have learned more about myself over the past several months because of this experience at the NIU HAC and I hope to continue serving those in need, long after my time with the clinic is complete.  Again perhaps we can use technology to assist helping the talented (regardless if they are poor or homeless) to find ways to continue to engage and make the world a better place for all.


Serving Lunch in the Cafeteria

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During my time working at the Health Advocacy Clinic over the summer, our group of three students was able to serve lunch in the cafeteria to guests in the PADS program. The cafeteria was pretty full; there were a lot of guests. Looking at the tables, I saw some guests who looked exhausted with their heads down. Still there were others attentive who ready to eat and very talkative. Then there were a few who sat alone in silence. We were met by a woman who worked in the kitchen and seemed to be running the show. She immediately asked, “Which one of you has the strongest stomach?” We all sort of looked wearily at each other and finally someone asked why. She informed us it was because that day, they were serving “delicious” pigs’ feet. The woman explained to us that a very nice large donation had come in and there were also specific requests for pigs’ feet. Right away, one of the other students stood up and said he would serve them, at which time I let out a sigh of relief, ran to the chocolate pudding and guarded it like it was Fort Knox.

Once we were set up at our stations, there was another woman who asked the guests for silence for a few announcements. The first announcement was about how there would be a sign-up sheet for showers because they were being fixed; another about how Hesed House had organized a group choir and that they had five people show up to the first meeting. At the conclusion of the announcements, a guest led a prayer over the food. Hesed also had a drawing for the guests, where winners were allowed to go first in line. Following the winners from the drawing, staff released guests table-by-table to the food line in a very organized fashion. Overall, the guests were respectful and polite when coming through the line. While serving the food, I tried to make eye contact, say hello, and ask, every so often, how they were doing. I could tell there was a language barrier with some guests as they just smiled and nodded when I spoke to them. There were other guests who were more talkative and also asked me how I was doing. All the guests were humble, gracious, and never once did I see a guest turn their nose up at or complain about the food

Unexpectedly during lunch, most of the guests turned down what I thought was the best part of the meal: the dessert. What shocked me further was the fact that several of the guests actually commented how the sugar and sweets were bad for them and declined to take any pudding or cupcakes. It surprised me how concerned most of the guests were about maintaining good health. I think I was surprised at the guests rejecting the dessert for a couple of reasons. For one, I have a sweet tooth and to be completely honest it would have probably been the only thing I ate that was being served that day for lunch. Secondly, I again think that the media and the news have shaped my misconceptions about the homeless. I feel like they are portrayed as lazy, stupid, not concerned about maintaining good health, and just not really concerned about anything. I had a misconception that the guests wouldn’t really care about their figure.  Third, I think it was surprising because I wouldn’t expect the focus to be on eating healthy with everything else going on in their lives. I think it showed me that the guests, although in a tough spot right now, are still striving to make health-conscious decisions.

I am so glad and grateful for this opportunity and the many others I have had to work with the guests throughout my time at the Health Advocacy Clinic.  During my two semesters, my preconceived feelings and attitudes about homelessness, originally shaped by limited media sources, were put to the test. I can say now that my prejudices have morphed into an empathetic understanding of the underlying issues that face the guests at Hesed House. Obtaining this awareness through the Clinic, I feel powerful with these gainful insights about our society and culture and hope to use this knowledge as I continue my career in public service.