glimpsING PRM’s future by viewing it through the lens of its past
In the Peoria area and surrounding communities, people getting up and going to work is almost as automatic as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. For guests of Peoria Rescue Ministries, the concept has been as foreign as watching a sunrise from the shoulder of the constellation Orion. It’s something they simply wouldn’t believe was possible for them.
“For the first 25 years I was here, we were just an emergency crisis relief shelter.”
Men’s Ministry Senior Director Lee Burnham sits in a chair, carefully evaluating the changes that have come through the many years he has served at Peoria Rescue Ministries.
“We kept people from dying on the street,” he recalled. “We gave them food, clothes, a safe place to sleep, some spiritual food every day. We didn’t have a way to help them get vocations.”
While not every homeless person lacks employment, quality, good-paying jobs are elusive for various reasons. External factors like soft job markets have impacted the employability of many who called PRM their temporary home over the decades it has served the Peoria community. Other issues were personal, such as addiction, mental health, legal trouble, and more.
In instances that the men overcame an addiction and got clean, starting over meant a completely new beginning. The neighborhoods they came from weren’t safe for a variety of reasons, the people they would return to hanging out with were just as in need of help as they were, and often a single inch backward would culminate in miles of hard work going down the drain. One thing was a continual hindrance to the guests making it out of poverty.
A good job.
But good jobs always proved to be elusive, and Burnham watched as familiar faces would darken the door of PRM time and again.
“They didn’t have a really good outlet unless somebody came along and offered to hire someone,” he explains empathetically. “We didn’t have a good way to help them get into any kind of a good sustainable job, either.”
The kinds of jobs they would need required at least a high school education, reliable transportation, and a reasonable assurance that they would be there for their shift. Hiring men from a homeless mission was not the go-to scenario for many employers. As a result, finding a pathway out of poverty was a tall order in the early days of Burnham’s career.
Often, the only work available to the men at PRM was day labor work for which cash was handed over and perhaps a sack lunch as well. Burnham saw the results of such infrequent employment.
“That’s a great way to keep them homeless,” he said.
“That doesn’t help them in the long run,” he went on to elaborate. “Once in a while, it adds to what they’ve already been doing, which is great. But as a whole, hiring for cash on the side irregularly just keeps them homeless. It gives them enough to survive, maybe for that day or the next day, but it’s not enough to actually make a living for themselves.”
In came Men’s Renewal Director Brian Butler. Burnham recognized that Butler was a man with whom the toughest street characters that PRM dealt with could identify.
Why? Because he was one of them.
Butler had served time in a state prison for drug-related offenses and, through an amazing series of encounters with the Gideons, came to a saving knowledge of Christ. After being paroled and coming to Illinois, Butler eventually found himself in the employ of Peoria Rescue Ministries and recognized the need for a renewal program. Putting together the Next Step Program, the two men discovered there wasn’t just an interest in renewal among the PRM guests. There was a hunger.
“When Brian Butler came to Peoria Rescue Ministries,” began Burnham, “we started changing our programming, and Jon Rocke had a huge part of that when he came on as executive director. It was Brian’s brainchild, and I believe with all my heart that it was from God.
The Next Step program added case management to the already extensive repertoire of well-developed tools for what would be termed the transformation part of the pathway out of poverty.
In the past, the Mission chaplain, directors, and assistant directors would try to do whatever it took to plug men into tangible, legitimate jobs, which were few and far between.
“I’ve tried for years to get employers to be willing to hire a man even on an entry-level basis and maybe cut some of the red tape out so they could hire more quickly,” explained Burnham.
“We might do it a few times, and then the employer has somebody come along and treat them bad. That employee turned out to be a bad example of what the majority of our men are. And then they wouldn’t hire our men anymore.”
Over half of them were sitting here with tears running down their face because they realized they actually might have an opportunity
As the Next Step program developed, the scope of assistance offered to PRM guests expanded. From obtaining state IDs to high school transcripts and more, guest advocates were instrumental in locating whatever was needed to land the men a quality, sustainable job.
This hard work resulted in more and more employers coming alongside PRM to hire men on an entry-level basis. Due to this vetting process, and the consistency of the program is turning out more students more focused on flourishing, much of that red tape Burnham fought early on left the picture.
The interesting part was that when the program began, no one knew if anyone would be interested.
“Years ago, we thought 40-50% of our men were just content to be homeless,” Burnham said, leaning forward. “There were guys on the circuit. They could eat 7, 8, or 9 times a day and never pay a penny if they got to each place on time. I thought the huge majority of our men were in that category when we started the next step program.
“The first meeting, we thought maybe we’d have a dozen guys interested. We thought that was a really high number as far as expectations on our part.”
More than forty men showed up for that information meeting of the Next Step program.
“That kind of blew us away,” Burnham chuckled. “Over half of them were sitting here with tears running down their face because they realized they actually might have an opportunity to get a real job and actually get back on their feet. Somebody would be here giving them full-time access to help with that.”
Many people who experience homelessness live outside of a pattern. The regular everyday existence might resemble some degree of order, but only in a survival mode. When a person is trying to survive, all bets are off regarding the lengths they will go to achieve that.
“I think a lot of our men that are in poverty kind of threw their hands up in the air,” Burnham explained. “They don’t know what to do next, so they just kind of make it up as they go along. That’s usually not good because of the things they make up or because of their friends.
“That doesn’t help them move forward in their life.”
The schedule at Peoria Rescue Ministries can be like a new pair of shoes for some of the guests. At first, it might pinch a little to have a regular wake-up time, breakfast, chapel, lunch, check-in, shower, dinner, chapel, and bedtime schedule throughout the day. But after a while, the pace becomes part of their life, and a visible change occurs.
Burnham leans forward, emphasizing the contrast of life on the streets to life at the Mission.
“On the street, you’re in fight or flight mode, all the time. So when you have an actual schedule and people you know you can trust, who have your best interests in mind, it’s important.”
For many guests, their schedule leveling off is the first step toward transformation. The schedule itself helps the guests see themselves differently, and seeing familiar faces in the same circumstances helps them lower their guard and be more receptive. That receptivity is where the gospel makes inroads into so many lives.
“I think it helps them realize what purpose they have as a person,” he says. “There is a reason for them being here.”
Burnham sits back a little and smiles knowingly.
“Of course, telling them how Jesus loves them and how he created them for a purpose helps along the way also.”
Living in that schedule and experiencing Christ isn’t the only reason for the schedule. Helping the guests to find their purpose is a key role. If the average guest is adrift, a gospel tether helps them get their bearings. A Spirit-led purpose in life helps them along their journey. Through assistance with educational opportunities and training, some guests have found a literal pathway out of poverty. Recently, a guest who went through the Renewal Program completed his commercial truck driver training at ICC and has a full-time job with a local trucking company.
“He has been such a great example of a graduate of our program that they’re willing to hire more in the future,” says Burnham, speaking of the doors opening for other graduates. “That’s the kind of thing employers like to see when they come alongside us.
For the guest coming in the door at PRM’s Downtown Mission for the first time, discovering that a future of possibilities, dignity, and hope is possibly the greatest thing awaiting them, mainly because those represent a flourishing, purpose-filled life through a relationship with Jesus Christ.
“They don’t just have to wander aimlessly for the rest of their life.”
But they discover they can drive into their future with a purpose.