In the Beginning there was . . . Pleasant Terror

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I left the first meeting of our little group excited, inspired, and pleasantly terrified. A long-time resident and self-proclaimed advocate of Aurora, I am ashamed that this was my first visit to Hesed House. I had read about it, thought about it, and heard its praises sung countless times, but all of my ‘good’ excuses kept me from lending a hand or ever checking it out for myself. I wish I had, because I would have known sooner that Hesed House far exceeds its glowing reputation.

As Mr. Dowd showed us around Hesed House and its Community Resource Center, I became more and more excited to be associated with this shelter. I was impressed by its leaders’ tireless efforts to serve the homeless population by pooling the efforts of multiple organizations, faiths, and disciplines. They do not limit themselves to supplying shelter and food, but helped to establish homeless children’s rights to attend school and set their guests up for success by providing access to job training, counseling, after school programs, and medical care. Hesed House even has designated staff that systematically endeavors to prevent homelessness.

I was especially interested in Mr. Dowd’s discussion of the causes and types of homelessness. He mentioned that, although Aurora is predominantly Hispanic, the Hispanic population makes up a very small portion of the homeless in Aurora. Their cultural values dictate that families take care of each other and often live together, resulting in only a marginal amount becoming homeless. Buri added that Indian culture is similar and that her in-laws regularly stay at her home for six months at a time when they visit from India. These comments started me thinking about the cultural and social causes of poverty and wondering whether the ‘breakdown of the American family’ that everyone is always talking about isn’t as much to blame for the rising number of homeless as the recession. Although there are surely countless cases that are unavoidable and unaffected by family situations, I wonder what the effect on poverty and homelessness would be if families and neighbors took care of each other instead of being content with the awkward conversations at Christmas, the begrudging wave at the mailbox, and the occasional phone calls. Sometimes I wonder if we get so wrapped up in ‘doing good’ through volunteering, community involvement, work, and education that we forget to be responsible family and community members. We look at the overwhelming problem, that over 600,000 Americans experience homelessness,[1] and forget that we have the ability to prevent homelessness and its common causes in our circles of influence.

It is also easy to become overwhelmed by the shear complexity of the problem of homelessness, as the causes are about as numerous and diverse as the homeless population. However, we again forget to look at those around us. This is not a problem that can be solved without collaboration and exploiting countless skill sets, passions, and ideas—it will require a community and the use of all of its resources.

The word ‘community’ may be an overused cliché, but it is my favorite cliché, and I am a proud over-user. The concept, or rather the ideal, of community pervades almost every aspect of my life. It is the reason I chose a small undergraduate institution, the reason I chose NIU, the reason I talked my family into opening a coffee shop, and the reason I commute from Aurora. The remarkable thing about Hesed House, and perhaps one of the reasons for its success in combatting homelessness, is that it engages the community. It works alongside the YMCA, PADS, churches, the interfaith food pantry, the local community college, and countless other entities to meet needs its own administration could not. Perhaps the break down of the most intimate community—the family—is related to the breakdown of the larger community and is partially to blame for large-scale problems with homelessness, crime, and addiction. Perhaps the community needs to be restored and utilized in order to address these large problems. Or perhaps this is only the idealistic musing of a naïve law student. I guess I’ll have to throw myself into this to know for sure. I cannot wait to get started and to find out how the legal field fits into this project.

I mentioned at the beginning of this reflection that I left feeling pleasantly terrified. It’s not a miserable terror; it’s a sort of thrilling terror; it’s the kind of fear you get right before you do something new—something you have looked forward to but might fail miserable at. It’s the feeling I have gotten before I have done anything remotely worthwhile in my short life. Perhaps the prolific tweeter, Erada, was right when she said: “if it’s both terrifying and amazing then you should definitely pursue it.”

[1] Snapshot of Homelessness, National Alliance to End Homelessness, (2013).

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