Charles sat down to talk about his life on a Saturday morning over breakfast at Inspiration Cafe. He was proudly wearing his Sodexo polo shirt – the uniform for his new employer – and getting ready to enjoy a weekend off. “I’m happy because I’m working,” says Charles, “I’m not homeless. I’m not sleeping in the snow, riding the El. I don’t have that many problems that I can’t handle.”
Things weren’t always so good. A lifelong Chicago resident, Charles became homeless for the first time in 2000 after the drinking habit he developed to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder began to dominate his life, “I had problems. I was shot. I was shot multiple times. I was drinking and going through a downward spiral.”
Charles found refuge at a north side shelter, where he began to work again doing simple jobs. A staff person there recognized his abilities in the kitchen and encouraged him to pursue work in food service.
In 2002, he enrolled in the second ever Inspiration Kitchens class to get his sanitation license. He excelled in the kitchen and found a true passion for cooking. “I was in class all the time,” says Charles.
After graduation, Charles found work at Urban Epicure where he was employed for the next two years. He developed a strong relationship with the owner, covering the kitchen while the chef went on vacation, and improving his culinary skills. “[The chef] used to always trick me. Give me food I’d never had then tell me it was snails or whatever,” laughs Charles, thinking about the experience, “Kitchen work is hectic, but it’s fun.”
Over the next five years Charles worked at a variety of restaurants: Ann Sather’s, Whole Foods, and several others. Charles credits the skills he learned from Inspiration Kitchens for his ability to get jobs, “When you’re good at cleaning and you keep your area tight, people notice.”
Despite the steady employment Charles couldn’t seem to overcome his homelessness and continued to struggle with his drinking problem and keeping jobs.
Things started to turn around for Charles after he enrolled in The Employment Project at Inspiration Corporation. Employment preparation training helped him structure his approach to finding work and, perhaps more importantly, helped him face up to and start to address the problems that were holding him back.
After graduation, Charles landed two different jobs with help from Inspiration Corporation staff. His rocky road to self-sufficiency wasn’t over yet, and he lost both jobs due to continued struggles with alcohol. In each case, his shifting employment situation made it difficult for him to secure housing outside of a shelter because many of the units he was applying for required steady employment.
Each time, Charles came into Inspiration Corporation the next day focused on turning his situation around and making another attempt. “I want to pay rent,” says Charles. “I want to be independent.”
Last spring, Charles found a position at the Shedd Aquarium with Sodexo. This time he seized the opportunity. “You learn from your mistakes,” says Charles.
His performance was exemplary, and his part-time job quickly turned into full-time employment. He loved the work, “It’s like jazzing every day, because it’s fun. You get to meet people of other races and cultures.”
Charles continued to work with Sodexo at UIC as a grill cook after the seasonal Shedd work ended in the fall and is looking forward to heading back to the Shedd this spring. He recently moved out of the shelter where he had been staying for years and into housing of his own with help from Inspiration Corporation’s Housing Services; a big step forward.
Charles’ story is not simple, and the road to self-sufficiency is not always an easy one. For many, the struggles with issues like addiction and mental health are never over and there may be no easy fix. For Charles, every one of Inspiration Corporation’s programs came into play in his path to independence: Inspiration Kitchens, The Employment Project, and Housing Services.
While his story may not be the picture perfect model of success, it does perfectly illustrate a core belief that anyone can transform their lives and achieve self-sufficiency if we care enough to help them do so, no matter the odds.
“Homeless people are not just addicts, alcoholics, buggy pushers, bums,” says Charles, “They’re people.”