In downtown Chicago, an institution celebrated its 30th anniversary while reflecting on its latest triumph: the employment of more than 27,000 Illinoisans this year. But it wasn’t in any of the towers or myriad governmental mega-office buildings, but in their shadows, on a single floor of a rather plain office building.
Past the almost unnoticeable window display at the front of the building, in an office of the typical off-white or tan partitions on the second floor, the first idea for the Put Illinois to Work program blossomed in the minds of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) earlier this year. The idea began as a creative way to meld unused federal stimulus money with a national subsidized jobs program the CCH had been working on to create a state level program, according to Jim Picchetti, 26, the contract field organizer of the CCH’s Jobs Program.
Picchetti said that after the national jobs program seemed stagnant, the CCH presented the idea to use state funds for a smaller program to the secretary of the Illinois Department of Human Services (DHS) — at the time, Michelle Saddler, who presented it to a very receptive Gov. Pat Quinn. Quinn loved the idea and found ways to make it even bigger, said Picchetti.
“Our original idea was to employ somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 folks, and he was able to double, almost triple that,” said Picchetti. According to a study by the Social IMPACT Research Center at the Heartland Alliance, which collaborated with the DHS to run the program, PITW put more than 27,000 un- or underemployed workers in positions with more than 4,000 employers in less than one year.
The CCH was among the first employers in the program, as they hired a longtime leader and volunteer at the program, Charles Jenkins, as an organizer-in-training. Jenkins, 56, said he was already a member of the CCH’s committee that was putting the program together when the idea struck him that he qualified for it. He said he asked the director of the CCH, Ed Shurna, at one of the last meetings about it.
“He said, ‘It’s a thought…,’ and he called the very next day and said ‘When can you start?’ I said, like, ‘Yesterday,’” said Jenkins, a loquacious founder of the CCH’s Speakers Bureau. His light brown, almost golden, eyes glowed sincerity as he praised a program that provides the simple opportunities and stabilizing power of a steady job. Jenkins recently had the “honor” to testify in Washington, D.C., he said, in support of further funding for the program.
Both Picchetti and Jenkins spoke with visible pride of several individuals that they have spoken with who received jobs or were able to continue a business near collapse due to PITW. Jenkins, as a formerly homeless person, felt a strong satisfaction from helping others who were at or near the same level of desperation he once felt. He was adamant in adding that several of the individuals furthered their education as they worked.
“I’m a firm believer in for he who much is given, much is required,” said Jenkins.
PITW is just the most recent success for an organization that has been working for 30 years to help the homeless. Jose Vasquez is another former homeless person who now works at CCH. He was hired on in 2005 as an administrator and homeless leader and spoke with a fluency in the history of homelessness in Chicago and around the country. Vasquez, 66, said he still visits his friends he made while living on Lower Wacker Drive to stay in touch and tell them there is help, if they want it.
“It helped me not only in employment, but also in that my self-esteem is picked up,” said Vasquez. Before he heard about the CCH, Vasquez said that he wasn’t aware of any way for the homeless to have a voice.
“It was set up to be the voice for the homeless … That’s what we do, we go to shelters, get people involved and let [the homeless] personally talk to legislators,” said Vasquez.
Mark Allen, a longtime local activist for the poor and proponent for economic development, has worked with the CCH over the years and is an employer in the PITW program with the Chicago Black Wall Street, for which he serves as a board member. Allen said that many of the people living on the street or engaging in illegal activities, such as selling bootlegs of films and music, are not bad people but are doing it out of sheer desperation.
“The best way to keep those 27,000 people out of harm’s way is to get them a job,” said Allen. He said he has employed four to six people as part of the program which has given the business a “360-degree boost” and was “like a savior” to the company.
PITW has been extended twice beyond its expiration date by Quinn by using state funds to prolong it until federal funds can be attained, but Quinn announced last week that he can not extend it past its current Jan. 15 expiration date. The CCH presented Quinn and the secretary of the DHS with awards for their work on PITW at their 30th anniversary celebration last month.
Picchetti said that he is confident that a way to prolong a subsidized job program will be found, and that the CCH will do its part in finding it by their usual methods of promoting the program and going on listening tours. Jenkins said he is confident that everything will work out, and that he isn’t concerned with his job but concentrating on what more he can do to help.
“At the end of the day it is about saying I did what I could do … When you do something for the right reasons and continue it for the right reasons, you get the right results,” said Jenkins.
Photo Caption: Jim Picchetti with Gov. Pat Quinn and his then-Chief of Staff Michelle Saddler and their awards from the CCH at the organizations 30th anniversary party at Buddy Guy’s Legends in downtown. Photo by Pepe Miranda, courtesy of the CCH.