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A Day in the Life of a Chicago Homeless Shelter

Sterling J. Gildersleeve, the Director of Operations and Programs for A Safe Haven

Entering A Safe Haven, located in Chicago, is like entering a hotel on Michigan Ave. Well-dressed and extremely polite patrons greet you at the front desk while others wait by the elevators to take you to your desired location.

One would never guess that a majority of these employees were once homeless on the streets of Chicago, or had even spent time behind bars.

A Safe Haven, founded by Neli and Brian Rowland in 1994, is designed to take in homeless people from around the city of Chicago and provide them with the tools necessary to lead successful, independent lives.

From transitional housing, including meals and health services, to job training and placement, A Safe Haven participants are provided the tools they need to succeed on their own.

According to WGN, with Chicago reaching 400 homicides in the year 2012 as of October, the community is looking to organizations such as A Safe Haven to make a difference.

Whether reaching out to Chicago’s homeless, it’s returning veterans, or troubled youth, A Safe Haven touches the lives of over 1200 people daily and has served over 32,000 clients.

“We offer from complete homelessness all the way up to home ownership,” said Sterling J. Gildersleeve, the Director of Operations and Programs for A Safe Haven. “We are the only ones.”

“The average is three to four months, but there is no time limit as long as somebody is working towards bettering themselves and they’ve got a plan and are following through on it, they can stay.”

At A Safe Haven, each resident’s individual needs are addressed. Mr. Gildersleeve added that a majority of participants keep in touch when they move into their own homes. “We stay in touch; it’s a community.”

A Safe Haven hopes to serve even more people in the future. “We’re always looking to expand,” said Gildersleeve. Currently, A Safe Haven’s added focus is on the growing population of young homeless who are susceptible to rising crime.

“The entire population of A Safe Haven is getting younger. When we first started in 1994, our average age was in the late 30s to early 40s, but now our population is much more in their 20’s.”

He added, “As more resources are available, young people will take advantage of them.”

One of their newest resources available to homeless youth is their youth overnight shelter. “Ours just started the 1st of October for youth ages 18-24.”

He added, “There is no other requirement other than being homeless. They can just come to our doors at 7pm; we let them come in and take a shower, let them wash their clothes, we give them dinner and breakfast the next morning.”

A Safe Haven also looks to reduce youth crime in Chicago with their Neighborhood Re-entering Initiative. Since many recently released inmates are homeless and drug-addicted, they will not integrate into society without specialized services.

A Safe Haven, working with parole officers and the Department of Corrections, recruits youth aged 18-24 who have been recently released from jail or prison and helps them begin a new life.

“Our goal is to keep the youth from returning to prison” said Gildersleeve. “We help them in anyway that will do that. We help them get into school, or if they need school clothes or school supplies, we supply that. Anything that will make it a challenge for the youth to be successful we help out with.”

Looking at the recent crime statistics in Chicago, where the city has had more homicides than U.S troop killings in Afghanistan this year according to the Huffington post, it’s clear that A Safe Haven’s Neighborhood Initiative is urgently needed.

Gildersleeve believes that the reason youth is becoming involved with crime is because it’s the only life they’ve known.

“People are just trying to survive and are doing the best they can with what they have. A lot of young people only know what they’ve seen. Sometimes coming to us, we see youth that you would be amazed at how terrible their situation has been all their life,” he said. “They don’t know any better; they have no morals, but given the opportunity, people can change.”

Their mission is clear, to help those they serve “aspire, transform, and sustain their lives from homelessness to self-sufficiency with pride and purpose.” Gildersleeve says the transformation is what makes his job so worthwhile.

“Everyday I get to see people at their very worst and then, by the time they leave, I get to see the pride in people transferring from here to their own homes.” He added, “We get the wonderful gift of helping people. There’s absolutely nothing better.”

Photo by Benita Gingerella

  • written by bgingerella on January 31st, 2013
  • posted in Featured
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The Hub Bub is a collection of articles, videos, audio, photo slideshows, interactive maps and other media produced by students enrolled in journalism courses at Loyola University Chicago's School of Communication. For more about the School of Communication, our award winning faculty, and our state of the art facilities located in the heart of Chicago, visit our website.