Improving life on the street
Tribune News Service
Jul 21, 2015 at 12:29 PM
The wounds of the past stay with her.
She is quick to show the track marks that scar her arms and legs from almost a decade of shooting heroin. There are other scars too, from being shot once and run over by a car, during the long, desperate years when she worked as a thief and a prostitute.
For a long time, Jacqueline Kennedy-Harris thought there was no escape.
But, 20 years ago, she wandered out of jail after one of her many arrests and found a route off the streets. She cleaned herself up, returned to the street — this time as a minister to other lost souls — and eventually scraped together savings to start a homeless shelter.
What started in 2001 with a small rented house and a few mattresses on the floor has turned into a network of three Chicago shelters that today house 125 men, women and children.
And Kennedy-Harris, a former crack addict who was once homeless herself, now spends her days overseeing a budget of $700,000, supervising a staff of 12 paid employees, and trying to make a difference in the lives of people who, she says, feel desperately alone and are often surprised to know that someone cares.
For them, Kennedy-Harris sees herself as an example of someone who has "made it out."
"People need to see an example," says Kennedy-Harris, 52. "Other people need someone: that mother they didn't have, that father they didn't have, that friend."
For that, Kennedy-Harris is willing to oblige.
"A few years ago I was living in abandoned buildings," said Kerry Walton, 47. "No matter how many times I went out in the street, she was always there to say, 'Come on back.' She never turned me away."
"I never had a mother," said Loretta Reeves, 52. "I never had no one to teach me. When I met her and God put her in my life, she became that mother for me."
"She paid some bills for me," said Janice Crockett, 53. "I didn't have a coat, and she bought one for me. I can think of countless things she did for me. ... Most important, she's always there to talk. We can call her any hour of the day. She always picks up the phone."
For her part, Kennedy-Harris says she's simply doing God's work. Religion is what helped her get clean. And, as she sees it, her addiction and recovery were all part of the plan. Her time on the streets was, what she calls, her "field work."
Now, she runs her shelters during the week and, on the weekends, serves as pastor to a small congregation at a storefront church, where there are bars over the windows, lawn furniture in place of pews and, for anyone who is in trouble, Pastor Jackie's phone number listed in the front window because, she says, "I'll never give up on anybody."
In hindsight, few might have predicted her salvation. Even her mother, Norma Jean Henderson, 80, said: "Jacqueline should have been dead. But she had nine lives just like a cat."
In the early 1990s, Kennedy-Harris was in the grips of a crack and heroin addiction. She had been arrested more times than she could count.
While being held one night in 1992 by the Cook County sheriff's office, a guard asked if she had found Jesus. Kennedy-Harris replied: "Even Jesus don't want me."
A few days later, she was released. It was January. The weather had turned bitterly cold.
If she had had the chance, she would have turned a trick, made a few dollars and gotten high. But the streets were empty. She wandered until she ended up on the doorstep of an old boyfriend, where she spent the night.
Who knows why it happened that evening.
Call it an epiphany. Call it grace.
Whatever it was, when she woke in the morning, something had shifted.
She found a church, moved in with a congregation member, slowly got sober and — once she had her life together — began volunteering as a mentor at a homeless shelter.
"She was the one we looked to," said Debra Douglas, 51, a resident of the shelter at the time. "A lot of us there were messed up. We had a lot of problems we had to deal with in life. She would come and tell her life story. Everyone was attached to her. Everyone loved Pastor Jackie."
At the time, Kennedy-Harris was clean and sober, working for a messenger service, taking college classes at night and living in her own apartment. The women at the shelter would seem so encouraged by her story that, she remembers, "I felt that if I would have gone back to drugs, it would have caused them to fall, and that helped me stay strong."
Inspired, she sold a beaver-fur coat, took her savings and, in 2001, opened her own shelter. At first, it was just the rented house where she invited the homeless to stay.
"She was doing everything herself. She was providing the housing, doing the counseling, coming up with ideas for funding," recalled Ceandra Daniels, 55, who was then working at Inner Voice, a homeless-services organization. "She was so passionate about what she was doing that I wanted to help."
Daniels suggested that Kennedy-Harris apply for city funding, and then introduced her to others who could guide her through the process.
"She would call us almost daily for a period of time," said Abdullah Hassan, director of programs at Inner Voice. "She always had a lot of questions. You could tell from the questions that she really wanted to do well."
With the help of friends at Inner Voice, Kennedy-Harris tapped into city funds and, over the next ten years, expanded from one shelter with four beds, to three shelters with 125 beds.
There were hurdles along the way. In 2009, her close friend and lead fundraiser, Larry Culkin, died of cancer, leaving her bereft and struggling to find her way through a labyrinth of paperwork. At the same time, she was waging her own battle against breast cancer, going through chemotherapy and losing her hair.
"It was a hard test for me," she said. "My motivation was to make sure that my shelters would not close."
Still, she made it through. "I'm a fighter by nature," she said. Now, she is a busy administrator who spends most of her time on quarterly reports and fundraising. Money is a constant worry. In 2011, a delay in city funding caused her shelters to end the year with a loss of $24,000, according to tax returns. The money came through, but a drop in private donations has left her struggling to keep the doors open.
She adopted a daughter in 1998 and raised the child. The girl, now 15, is the center of her emotional world. "I needed her just as much as she needed me," she says. Likewise, Kennedy-Harris says, her work with the shelters has given her life meaning and purpose.
"I just try to live my life to help other people," she says, "because if I wasn't busy doing the Lord's work and running my shelters, I'd probably be out there on the streets."
"Bertina! Not again!" cries Kennedy-Harris.
She is standing in her shelter in Back of the Yards. For the last several months, she's been keeping close tabs on Bertina Johnson, 23, who arrived at the shelter in July, and who has since made great strides, getting her toddler into day care and enrolling in a GED course.
But Bertina is supposed to be in school on this day. And Kennedy-Harris wants to know why she is sitting on her bed.
"Somebody stole my bus card," says Johnson, who hangs her head. "I had a whole 30-day pass and somebody took it."
Kennedy-Harris chides her for being careless with her card. "I keep telling y'all put your stuff in your bra," she says. But then her voice softens. "I'm going to help you," she says, handing Johnson a bus card. "That's a one day where you can ride all day. I'll make a call and see what else I can do."
With that, Kennedy-Harris hurries out the door. She has a busy day scheduled. But these small interactions with residents keep her motivated. Most people, she says, need to know that someone cares. And she can tell Johnson has been working hard and making progress.
"All those horrible things I went through, now I see how much I gained through it," she says. Without those years on the streets, "I don't think I would have the compassion that I have. When you know a person is only doing as good as they can, you can try to motivate them. You can't give up on nobody, because you don't want anyone to give up on you."