Helping the Homeless. My journey and my blessing.

"Miss Julie" retires from full-time volunteering on the streets of Springfield

"You haven't lived until you have helped someone who cannot repay you." –John Bunyan

Crack pipes. Heroin needles. Baggies. Air canisters. Infection from dirty needles. Stitches. Staples. Black eyes. Arms in casts. Open wounds. Crutches. Wheelchairs. Canes. Tears. Used condoms. Bloody clothing. Worn out book bags. Wet blankets. Torn sleeping bags. Dirty coats. Duct-taped tennis shoes. People smelling of urine and sweat. Fire trucks. Police. Lost souls.

I witnessed much in my eight years of being a boots-on-the-ground volunteer for my ministry, "Helping the Homeless in Springfield, Illinois."

I answered a call from God on Jan. 24, 2016, and became known as Miss Julie. Donations trickled in from Springfield and surrounding community residents individually, through churches, organizations and even functions with leftover food to help the homeless population. Back then I worked full-time at a private company and decided three years later to retire from there and be a full-time volunteer.

I rented a building, took donations and organized the van to drive around the streets handing out items in need. I was among 40 men at times, by myself, and never had a problem. They were more often than not kind and respectable. In the event someone was grumpy and ungrateful, I tried to have compassion, empathy and patience, and know that I was blessed.

I wore T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts imprinted (for donations) with the name of the ministry, telephone number and post office box, and was accessible seven days a week, almost 24 hours a day at times. Also I became part of the 211 United Way-sponsored access for the homeless community.

My clientele was broken, depressed, addicted to drugs, suffering from mental illnesses of various kinds, including bipolar disorder, manic depression, anxiety, PTSD, schizophrenia and antisocial behavior.

For two summers I supervised showers at the 11th and Madison streets facility, the now-defunct city of Springfield warming center. The homeless would sign up Monday, Wednesday and Friday to get showers and exchange dirty clothes to get laundered for donated clothing and hygiene items. It was one of the best times for the homeless on the street.

During COVID, from April to November 2020 when St. John's Breadline was serving just one meal a day, I started a "meal train," by transporting donated food to the hungry. I delivered meals and cold beverages from volunteers every day during that period. Other necessities were handed out, including blankets, sleeping bags, hand warmers, hygiene items and clothing/shoes.

In the fall of 2020, I was responsible for tent city, on the grounds of Springfield's warming center, which wouldn't open until Nov. 1. Tent city was successful or unsuccessful, depending on your point of view. It was a place where the homeless could gather and get help. It was also a place for crimes against each other. Donations were dropped off – everything from food to clothing to many unnecessary items that had to be monitored. It became a dumping ground for some who didn't understand that homeless people should be treated with respect by receiving donations of gently used items.

I took a woman and her boyfriend to the hospital to have their baby boy at 2:30 a.m. Unknowingly, I took someone to make a drug deal. I went out at all hours of the day and night, helping as often as I could to those in distress. During the polar vortex, 57 street homeless got motel rooms, as did numerous people during the worst weather every year thereafter.

I was a Social Security Representative Payee to 20 people over six of those years and became a surrogate mom, friend, sister, personal assistant, confidant, social worker and case manager. I did my best to connect people to professionals, but I was accessible seven days a week. I helped people get identifications, apartments, Amtrak or Greyhound tickets to come home or leave the city. I took telephone calls from jail inmates who were alerting me to their release date. I asked no questions but heard it all. I made no judgments, merely listened.

I have been lied to, threatened (by one woman) taken advantage of and had my shoulder cried on by many men who lost the only person they felt cared for them, their mother. I received numerous awards, was written up in the State Journal-Register twice as well as Illinois Times, interviewed numerous times for local and out-of-town news segments and interviewed twice by NPR Illinois.

I have recently retired from Helping the Homeless in Springfield, Illinois.  I want to read, write, bike, paint and breathe. I now own and successfully operate two sober-living homes for men, without government funding.

It became clear to me I had lived in a bubble most of my life. Family problems growing up were nothing compared to the trauma that is suffered by someone who becomes homeless and is trapped in that cycle for years. I was oblivious to firsthand accounts of people broken in every way imaginable. When I thought I had heard it all and seen it all, someone else had a more tragic life story. I feel blessed.

I am a lifelong resident of Springfield. I have two sons, a daughter-in-law and one grandson. I worked in private industry my whole life. I love to read, write and engage with people that might not otherwise get someone to listen. I will always have a heart for the underdog.

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