Chicago: House of Hope


You could call her a miracle worker, but she'd probably laugh out loud.

Sister Connie Driscoll single-handedly reduced the number of homeless in the city of Chicago by two thirds, and she did it without adding a single bed. No miracles were required; the Roman Catholic nun accomplished this feat by the simple expedient of creating a more efficient reporting system.

What Driscoll actually reduced was the city's numbers of reported "turnaways," those who aren't admitted to shelters because no beds are available. Under the old system, if a woman tried to get lodging at two shelters and was turned away, but was admitted at a third, she was still counted twice as a turnaway.

"In September of 1988, we showed 6,000 women and children turned away from shelters," Driscoll recalls. "And when that figure got that high, I said, 'C'mon. Enough is enough. Let's find out how many of those are duplications.'" So she developed reporting sheets that give the date, the initials of the women, their dates of birth, and the number of children they have; every shelter fills the sheets out and turns them in regularly. They also send in lists that show who's currently in each shelter. By September 19891, the turnaways were down to 2,120.

There are solutions to the problems of the homeless, solutions that don't require the intervention of government, private solutions that work. Sister Connie Driscoll, and Sister Therese O'Sullivan of the St. Martin de Porres House of Hope in Chicago's Woodlawn neighborhood have been proving it every day for almost eight years. They base their work on the principle of individual responsibility.

Driscoll and O'Sullivan founded their shelter for homeless women and children in 1983 on tough-love principles. If you want to stay here, you have to keep your area clean. You have to sign up for and perform chores. You have to take care of your children. You have to take classes, both GED classes and classes in "life skills." Many women, says Driscoll, don't know how to do laundry or go shopping. You have to save 70 percent of your public aid checks, so you have a stake when you leave.

It works. In the last seven years, over 6,000 women have passed through the doors of St. Martin de Porres. Driscoll claims that only 6.5 percent of her charges have returned to the shelter system; for the Chicago system as a whole, 38.9 percent will return to a shelter. The 140-bed shelter runs on a $240,000-a-year budget. To remain independent, Driscoll takes no money from any branch of government or even from the church. The nuns run a separate facility for pregnant and parenting teens on the same principles.

The money for all this comes from individuals (the nuns take no salary), from private foundations, and from Driscoll's speaking engagements. The staff of 10 (five of them ex-residents) is loyal, despite low wages. "If you want to make a lot of money, obviously you're not going to come to work for me," observes Driscoll.

Driscoll, a Missionary Sister of the Poor, doesn't match most people's mental image of a typical nun. She is outspoken. The black patch over her left eye and the long brown cigarettes she smokes give her a faintly piratical air. The remaining bright blue eye gleams with intelligence, humor, and, when she gets going, fire. A one-time lawyer, she decided she didn't care for the law a long time ago. She became a nun in 1982; several years ago, she and O'Sullivan adopted a baby girl. She's also a statistics freak—she's been tracking the women who stay at St. Martin via computer since opening the shelter and now keeps the figures for the entire city of Chicago. The numbers are all on the tip of her tongue.

One number she declines to give is the number of homeless in Chicago: "There are so many variables." For instance, in Cook County, prisoners can't be required to sleep on cots in jail—but they can sleep on cots in homeless shelters; court-ordered releases swell the numbers of male homeless on a regular but artificial basis. Runaways, prostitutes, drug and alcohol abusers, battered women, and those who are just between apartments for a few days are all included in the official count of the homeless population.

The average length of a stay at her shelter is 76 days, but, notes Driscoll, that figure tells only a partial story; stays vary by season and by group. The most difficult to help are the long-term homeless, frequently women who were pregnant for the first time at the age of 15, who may now have several children, substance abuse problems, and next to no education. "They are now third-generation welfare recipients and have not really set any goals, or patterns in their life. They stay here much longer than the others."

But they can be helped—and often are. "We have lots of success stories," declares Driscoll. "Many of them still live in the community. Many of them are employed. They're living in their own homes and have been stabilized for years. Many of them are off welfare and doing extremely well. I don't think a day has gone by in over six years that ex-residents have not checked in with Sister Therese, just to say, 'Hi, how ya doin'?'"

Juanita Green is a two-time success story. The 35-year-old daughter of a black middle-class family, she had a degree in accounting and a responsible position with a major Chicago hospital, along with a house, a car, and a family. Then she got into freebasing cocaine.

Fired from her job, she found others easily enough but couldn't keep them. After three years in a downward spiral, she got into a detox program and then into St. Martin de Porres. Driscoll recently hired her as an outreach worker, to help former residents maintain their apartments and budget their money. Green and her two daughters—a toddler and an infant—will live at the shelter, though: "It keeps me out of temptation."

"Sister Connie is about helping women and doing it on an individual basis," says Patricia Carr, who also knows from firsthand experience. She moved to Chicago from Peoria, had no place to go, and found herself at St. Martin. She stayed for six months. For almost three years, she's been the secretary for the local Roman Catholic parochial school, handling all the money that comes in.

"It was quite a risk for the priest to take, to hire me," Carr says. "There are labels on shelter people."

"It's important to stress the spiritual aspect—it's not so much that they're bringing religion to everyone there, but that they're role models. They live Christian values."

Carr also appreciates the emphasis on personal responsibility: "I have a firm belief that no one saves you but yourself. You can reach out when you're drowning, and someone may help you—but finally you have to save yourself."

If residents are enthusiastic about Driscoll, most advocates for the homeless in Chicago are a little more reluctant with their admiration: Sister Connie gets results, but she isn't politically correct. Conventional left-liberal wisdom holds that government simply needs to provide more housing, and the problem will disappear. Driscoll disagrees.

"People wouldn't talk about the fact that in all of this population there was such a serious problem with drugs and alcohol and lack of personal responsibility and accountability," says Driscoll. "They just kept screaming that it was all housing, and as soon as we build houses for everybody in the United States, everybody's going to live happily ever after. Well, we all know that isn't true." She believes that too many self-styled advocates for the homeless are involved only peripherally with the real-life people and situations.

"I think she's sending a very bad message to the public when she says that other things are more important than housing," says Doug Dobmeyer, executive director of Chicago's Public Welfare Coalition. "When housing is unaffordable, I can understand why people might get into drugs or alcohol to escape those problems." Dobmeyer, a self-described "progressive," labels Driscoll's call for less government involvement "a total crock."

"Sister Connie is a somewhat controversial figure within the community of advocates," says Jo Holzer, president of the board of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. "A lot of people feel that some of her approaches are simplistic." Holzer calls Driscoll "a remarkable person, one who takes a very tough-minded approach. There are many in the field of social welfare who don't take a toughminded approach—what we're always hearing referred to as the 'bleeding-heart liberals.'" There is, Holzer suggests, a certain amount of resentment over Driscoll's assertiveness and strongly held and expressed opinions.

Holzer points out that Driscoll was one of the first to recognize the problem of "coke babies," and she salutes her "tremendous contribution" in reducing the turnaway count. "I'm glad she's there. Sometimes people agree on the goal, but disagree with the path—but her heart's in the right place. She's a strong resource for homeless people who need very clear rules."

Driscoll says she doesn't see any one answer to the problems of the homeless. "I think the entire public welfare system has to be revamped. I think the public welfare system does everyone a disservice—the people who are paying for it—and the people who are using it because it really does lock people into poverty."

Driscoll notes that public aid was originally supposed to be a temporary stopgap measure. Now, she says, it doesn't make financial sense to get off welfare and take a minimum-wage job. So abuses of the system are inevitable.

She stresses that she isn't talking about abuse of the welfare system by its clients but about the basic weaknesses of the system itself. "When you're living in deep, deep poverty, what constitutes abuse? Whenever you hand out a dole to someone and don't require a responding, positive action from them—other than to sign their name and cash the check—then, I think, we do a disservice to everyone. And when that money is then used irresponsibly, not because they intentionally do it, but because they don't know any other way, can we be surprised?"

She suggests a less open-ended system and can predict the lines of the protests: "'The children are going to suffer.' And I know we have to take that into account, but I still think that people should only have x number of months where they would be entitled to public welfare, and they have to show progress toward getting off of it."

One model might be Illinois's unemployment compensation scheme, in which people who lose their jobs receive money for a limited amount of time, can earn up to half their benefits before they're docked, and have to demonstrate that they're trying to find work. Driscoll also suggests direct-payment voucher systems for landlords and grocery stores.

Driscoll is, she cautions, speaking in generalities: Plenty of those who find themselves on public aid would like to get off it but don't know how. She's hoping for a new emphasis on education in shelters, "if you can get the liberal left to get off the bandwagon about 'You can't force people to do things because you think it's right.' Well, maybe they can't, in publicly operated shelters and publicly funded shelters. But, as a private shelter, we can make it a part of our contract—and we do."

Driscoll predicts that other shelters will begin to emulate her methods, now that state and national groups have begun to recognize St. Martin. The National Alliance to End Homelessness, for example, has named the shelter one of eight model programs in the United States in its book The Checklist for Success: Programs to Help the Hungry and Homeless.

Plans for expansion of St. Martin de Porres are under way. Rather than increasing the number of beds, however, the shelter will use the added room to improve its program. The 4,100-squarefoot addition will include a children's playroom, a preschool classroom, counseling rooms, a resale shop for job training, a GED classroom, a medical clinic, a women's lounge, and additional laundry facilities.

So far, however, Driscoll hasn't lined up funding for the mammoth project. "Like everything else, it'll come," she says. "It's always been our position that if God wants this place to go, then God's going to have to provide the means for it to happen. And so far, it's worked."

Bryan Miller is a Chicago-based freelance writer.