How one non-profit’s innovative approach has many homeless Chicagoans actually smiling again.
Chicago, Illinois, USA
Goldie’s Place feels like a shared office space that includes a dentistry. The air smells like fluoride. There’s a business tie draped over the side of a chair in a corner. If you pass someone in the hall they’ll look you in the eye, greet you, and then make their way back to their stuff-filled desks.
There’s no show, no fuss, no ego – because at Goldie’s Place people are too busy helping homeless people land jobs. They do it by giving them confidence and actual smiles for when they walk into interviews.
Goldie’s Place has been in operation since 1996. They named themselves after Roy “Goldie” Dogan, one of the first people that they served. He lacked self-esteem, battled drug and alcohol issues, and died from complications from overexposure to Chicago’s bitter winter cold.
What started as a few volunteers who held meetings under highway overpasses has turned into a staff of 11 that serves thousands a year. Their employment assistance programs provide career mentorship and their dental clinic, staffed by volunteer and student dentists from the University of Illinois Chicago, is one of the first of its kind in the nation.
“We help the whole person… not just the broken pieces that they came in with for us to help them fix.” said Teneshia Morgan, Goldie’s Employment Assistance Program Director and longest-serving staff member.
The people who have appointments at Goldie’s Place certainly have broken pieces.
One young woman grew up in Chicago’s housing projects. She’s a single mother from an impoverished background, yet she managed to get two ivy league degrees. Homelessness hit her because of domestic violence.
“She walked away from a very lucrative career because her husband would not stop beating her. To see all the things that she had to give up to start over – to start over with absolutely nothing. Family support wasn’t there. They wanted her to fix her marriage… and she was afraid for her life.” said Morgan.
“We help the whole person… not just the broken pieces that they came in with for us to help them fix.”
The way Goldie’s Place handles this lack of a support network is to demonstrate what it looks like to build and be a part of one. No one person or organization is completely self-sufficient.
It starts with referrals. Every person that is helped by Goldie’s Place must first be referred by a shelter, counselor, faith-based institution, or community program. Referrals ensure that a person’s history is better understood, they have a real desire to change, and the beginnings of a network are in place. This results in a higher probability that the help given is the help needed, and that different goals are addressed by the places best positioned to do something about them.
One recent way someone found Goldie’s Place was through police officers. The Chicago Police Department CAPS – Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy enables neighborhood patrollers to recommend repeat offenders to organizations like Goldie’s Place. Programs like CAPS are intended to bring the police and communities together as part of the same team. The hope is that Chicago’s police force can partner with people in trouble instead of punish them.
From there, the staff at Goldie’s Place listen and respond to these homeless individuals with tailored programs and resources – whether it be resume building and employability training, a new oral health regimen, or a set of dentures to regain self-esteem for interpersonal relations and job interviews.
“Sometimes you have to put the pen down, and listen. When you put the pen down and actually listen, you hear what they’re telling you, you hear what their heart is screaming out, what words they don’t have to convey that to you” said Morgan.
It’s through listening that the staff at Goldie’s have learned how to present their programs to people who are often ignored, overlooked, and abused.
As such, the homeless people at Goldie’s Place are called “clients.” When those clients need business clothing from the clothes closet it’s referred to as “shopping” so that it feels more normal for them. A client’s first dental exam is a “consultation” to assess their oral health. Employers and clients are matched based on whether it’s a “personality fit” as well as a skills fit.
The staff listen, converse, and work in this way to emphasize that they are a professional service to help these people get jobs.
They remind their clients that no matter what they face or how much progress they make, there’s always a fluoride-perfumed office space on Chicago’s north side where they aren’t alone.
Images provided by Goldie’s Place.
This article is a part of Notes on Doing Solutions – a new column that highlights people in organizations around the world who love what they do, and help others while doing it.