Chris Jordan was making good money working at a factory in Ravenswood when the crash came.
The factory was sold, and his job was lost in the transition. Out of work, he bounced back and forth between unemployment and low-wage fast-food jobs before he found himself rummaging through trash cans in Grant Park. "I was homeless," says Jordan. "I never ever imagined I would come to that."
Since those days in the winter of 1990, he's rebounded and now earns his keep as a painter, but he's never forgotten the lessons he learned when he was down and out. "Some guy might be thinking it can't happen to him. Well, let me tell you--that's not true," says Jordan. "I've been there. I know. It's a short distance between hope and hopelessness. At any time you can fall through the cracks."
That's a lesson Jordan spreads throughout the Chicago area. He's now a speaker in the "truth squad," a group of single adult males who were once or are now welfare recipients. Working in conjunction with the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, a not-for-profit advocacy group, Jordan and other speakers visit suburban churches, synagogues, and civic groups to put a human face on a subject frequently distorted by sensational headlines and shocking stories.
"There are so many stereotypes that dominate the welfare debate," says Roger Bennett, JCUA's director of policy. "You hear it all the time: they're lazy, they're freeloaders, they don't want to work. We don't want people to take one or two shocking cases and make them universal."
Jordan agrees with most politicians when he says, "Welfare stinks." The difference is in the details. As he sees it, the new changes proposed by politicians ranging from House Speaker Newt Gingrich to Governor Jim Edgar have been intended to punish recipients, not assist them. Instead of easing recipients into the mainstream work world, the changes stigmatize and demonize them. "People on welfare are portrayed as leeches and bloodsuckers who want something for nothing," says Jordan. "But I tell people--if you really want to help someone on welfare, don't give him money, give him a job."
What's worst, says Jordan, is the notion that immediately cutting off benefits will help recipients. "How's it going to help someone to take everything away?" Jordan asks. "How can you get a job if you can't afford a decent suit for an interview or if you've got nowhere to live? It's not logical."
Since 1991, however, the state has been steadily cutting assistance for single adults like Jordan. Monthly benefits have gone from $154 to $60. "And now they have Earnfare--which means you're supposed to work for those benefits," says Jordan. "They say that you'll be hired full-time when your six months of eligibility are up. But why should any employer pay you a decent wage when they can get someone else on welfare to work for practically nothing?"
In addition, the state has severely cut medical benefits for welfare recipients. "All medical assistance is gone--you can't get dentures or eyeglasses," says Sharron Matthews, executive director of the Public Welfare Coalition, a not-for-profit advocacy group. "I guess if you're poor, you're not supposed to see. It's not only insensitive, it's counterproductive. How can people get jobs if they can't see?"
It was to reverse such trends that the welfare coalition and JCUA created the truth squad. They recruited speakers from community organizations throughout the city, enlisting them in storytelling workshops offered by Thom Clark of the Community Media Workshop. For many speakers, the storytelling was therapeutic.
"It was good to get a lot of this stuff off my chest," says Jordan. "There were things I really wanted people to know."
Jordan's father was a police officer, his mother a maid. He was a football star in high school--"They called me the "bowling ball' 'cause I was big and stocky and I used to roll over people." After high school he served six years in the army, returning to Chicago in 1983. "I thought I'd get a job in law enforcement, but I wound up working as a landscaper in Winnetka," Jordan says. "From there I got the job in Ravenswood. I ran a drill press. I read blueprints. I was making $9.75 an hour. I had my own apartment. And the company got sold. The new owners said they were sorry but we'll have to let you go. This was in the winter of 1989. I was depressed for a while, but I said I'll press on. I went everywhere looking for another machinery job. I went to Schaumburg; I went to Wheeling; I had to go to the suburbs because that's where those companies were. But nothing. I finally took a job with a Popeye's on 47th and Drexel. I was making $3.75 an hour, minimum wage, working with kids younger than me. Then they shut down my shift and I didn't even have that job. That's when I went on general assistance. I didn't like it. I figured I was young, strong, and capable of working. But no one would hire me."
After his welfare eligibility expired, Jordan lost his apartment and found himself on the street. "I was living in Grant Park in the winter of 1990, and, man, that was cold," he says. "Sometimes I'd go to shelters, but I didn't like them. If you're not back by a specific time you don't get your bed back at night. You can't leave your belongings so you have to take them with you to a job interview or hide them in the bushes. You don't have an address; you don't have a phone. I kept telling myself, "This is just a low point, it's gotta get better."'
He pulled out by hooking up with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, where he found work as a counselor advising other homeless people. From there he enrolled at Olive-Harvey Community College, where he took law enforcement courses. He's now living at a hotel on the north side, paying for his rent by painting rooms.
"This is my story and I'm not ashamed to tell it because I know it could happen to anyone," says Jordan. "I tell it straight and I speak with a strong voice because I want people to know what it's like. I tell people, "If I was president I'd take every single adult male that was out of work and give him a test to see what his skill level is. Then I'd get him some training so he can get a job, and then I'd put him to work--with real wages, so he can pay his rent and feed himself. And I wouldn't cut him off after six months, like Earnfare does. Get people good jobs and you won't need welfare."'
So far Jordan has told his story at five different truth squad appearances. The most recent was at a Rotary Club gathering at the Highland Park Country Club. Along with Bennett and Maurice O'Neal, a welfare-rights activist, Jordan sat at a front table eating lunch while the Rotarians ran through their business, which included a trivia quiz led by Bunny Collins, a long-standing member.
"Table two," Collins asked at one point. "Who was president in 1987-88?"
"Reagan," someone quipped.
"Of our club," Collins said, while a few wisecrackers chuckled and guffawed.
"Frank," someone from table three said.
"The answer is Eddie," said Collins. For getting it wrong, table three had to contribute three dollars to the pot.
This went on for about 20 minutes, while Collins cleverly found one reason or another to fine various Rotarians and add more money to the collection. Then it was the truth squad's turn, as Bennett introduced Jordan and O'Neal by quoting a particularly ironic passage from Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens: "There is not a country in the world, sir, where so noble a provision is made for the poor as in this country."
Jordan took the podium to tell his tale, starting with his days on the high school football team and ending with his miserable stint on general assistance.
Afterward the floor was opened for questions, but there were few. Bennett, Jordan, and O'Neal had clearly dampened the good cheer of the gathering with their chilling reminder of the harsher world outside the country club. One man asked about the demographics and costs of welfare, which gave Bennett an opportunity to point out that the majority of welfare recipients are white and that welfare benefits constitute less than 2 percent of the federal budget. When the meeting was over, most of the Rotarians rushed back to work, though a few stopped by to offer Jordan words of luck and encouragement.
"I know I live in a different world and I know that I didn't reach all of them," he said as he headed off for the long ride back to Chicago. "If I reached one person, I'm happy."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Jon Randolph.