Housesitting in Windy City Offers Way Out for Homeless

After months of sleeping in shelters, old cars, and a dank basement, Doretta Jackson wanted a home. Instead, the homeless woman got a job - as a house-watcher.

In the age of "workfare," a unique program in Chicago is helping some of America's neediest cross the threshold to a life of self-sufficiency.

Chicago's House Watch program recruits homeless people to stay in empty and refurbished Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) units.

The CHA gains on-sight security against drug addicts and vandals who trash vacant units. In return, the homeless recruits receive education, job training, a $231 monthly payment, and the chance to establish a permanent home.

"It's a win-win situation," says CHA chief Joseph Shuldiner.

"For a fairly inexpensive cost on our part, we get the units protected and at the same time we get homeless people off the streets," Mr. Shuldiner explains.

"Under welfare reform, we need programs like this that address people at the lowest rung," he adds. "We are getting them started upwards."

Small start

Mrs. Jackson is one of 30 people now working for House Watch, which is funded by the CHA and run by Inner Voice, a West Side community organization devoted to helping the needy.

About 300 people have enrolled in the program since it was launched in Dec. 1992 as a tiny pilot project.

"I don't think I would have made it without this program," says Ms. Jackson, who last spring was on the street and emotionally traumatized after being raped by an acquaintance.

Twice, she attempted suicide. "I had kind of given up," says the soft-spoken mother of two grown daughters.

But in July, Jackson showed up at the offices of Inner Voice. She was first screened for criminal convictions, drug use, and math and reading ability.

She was equipped with a sleeping bag, slow cooker, and a five-inch TV and placed in a scattered-site CHA house.

According to program rules, Jackson must stay inside the house each night from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. Visitors are not allowed. She cannot drink or use drugs, and must also undergo spot drug tests.

In return, Jackson has received free counselling and job training. Recently, she found work as a sales clerk at an Eddie Bauer clothing store. Soon, she expects to have a permanent home.

Jackson's enthusiasm is matched by that of Chicago public housing officials, who estimate House Watch has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars. "It pays for itself," says John Tuhey, Project Manager of the CHA's Redevelopment Division.

Once a CHA unit is vacated, vandals move in within hours to strip out anything of value - from $1.50 copper heat manifolds to 50-cent toilet fixtures.

Damage control

The cost from flooding and other damage that result totals, on average, $1,000 to $25,000, Mr. Tuhey says. "Unless someone is guarding the unit, we will lose that $1,000 to $25,000."

The CHA now assigns house-watchers to guard its most valuable commodities: the 100 to 200 units that are being rehabilitated. But Chicago's need for the off-beat security force is potentially far greater. More than 9,000 of the city's 42,000 public housing units are currently vacant.

"Clearly, this is something we would like to maximize," says Mr. Shuldiner. The program could serve as a model for other cities with high vacancy rates in public housing, such as Philadelphia, Detroit, and New Orleans, he says.

Still, problems of attrition and safety continue to confront the organizers of House Watch.

Only about 1 in 5 homeless applicants passes the initial screening test. Of those, about a third are eventually dismissed for using drugs or simply failing to show up. Another third drop out after finding other housing independently.

"We're strict - no drinking or drugging and no visitors," says Inner Voice executive director Brady Harden Jr.

Another challenge in housing complexes notorious for 24-hour drug dealing and frequent shooting incidents is ensuring the safety of the unarmed house-watchers.

Supervisors with cellular phones check on the homeless workers twice during each nightly 12-hour shift. After that, they are on their own.

Anthony Robinson, an unemployed shoe salesman who joined House Watch last June, recalls facing a mob of gang members who attempted to intimidate him in the doorway of his CHA apartment building, which was thick with drug-trafficking.

"You are always concerned when you walk into a place with drug-dealing and gang-banging going on," says Mr. Robinson, who managed to get past the mob. "You have to watch your back."

On occasion, house-sitters with gang affiliations have been shifted to new locations to protect them from rival gangs, says Mr. Harden of Inner Voice.

A starting point

Nevertheless, for many Chicago homeless such as Robinson and Jackson, the overriding concern is for a warm place to sleep.

"It's a load off my mind to know I have a place to stay in the evening so I can even think about what I'll do in the morning," says Robinson, sitting on his mattress in a bare but comfortable room.

As for Jackson, she proudly points out her latest home improvements: an "itty-bitty" table and sheets she bought at a thrift store.

At Halloween, she put jack-o'-lantern decals on the windows and handed out candy. This week, she caught herself studying a newspaper ad for Christmas lights.

"It's beautiful here," she says. "I love it."

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