A Community Without a Home

By: Rebekah Baum
By: Rebekah Baum

He works for the ICE Railroad, a rail worker who doesn't want to be identified, but he can identify by name the dozen or so individuals currently living along this short stretch of track on Rockford's southwest side.

"We try to help them out, some with clothes and stuff like that. We try not to give them too much money because a lot of it goes to alcohol."

Some live in tents.

"Some live in abandoned buildings they've found and set up shop; some live in various tunnels, right under the bridges," say Al Barsema, Executive Director of the Carpenter's Place in Rockford.

For a year and a half, Barsema went down to the camps every week, getting to know the population and the issues festering in the culture; alcohol, drug abuse and unaddressed mental health problems.

"There's one couple who's been down there for 16 years, and a number of those years in the same location. Some of them move around from camp to camp, but it's a unique population down there. They're survivors, pick some of your worst days, when the winds blowing and it's cold and freezing out, and there will be guys out there under a piece of plastic," says Barsema.

The complex homeless problem contains several layers, and Barsema says the campers, a fiercely independent group, are the toughest population to rehabilitate

"They know it's not life as it should be, but it's hard to make a transition from that level of existence up to stable employment. It's a hard transition to make. There's many, many life issues that need to be addressed concurrently," says Barsema.

Barsema says, unfortunately, our social service system makes it easy for the campers to remain in this environment. There's numerous agencies performing isolated services without a lot of coordination or accountability.

"We've had folks tell us, if I wanted a bed I would get it, if I wanted a meal it would be provided, if I want a bag of groceries it's there, if I need pants it's given to me, if I have a medical issue it's taken care of, and everything they can beg, borrow or steal can go to support their addiction. That's not why we set our systems up," says Barsema.

Accountability is the cornerstone of the Carpenter's Place wall of recovery.

"You need to balance love and compassion with accountability; that's what we work on the most here. The peer pressure to stay down there is strong, so to get someone extracted from there takes a lot of effort, it takes a radical life shift, really," say Barsema.

The Carpenter's Place is putting on a play on June 16 and 17 at New American Theater that will give the audience a glimpse of what life is like for the homeless campers.

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