My name is Rich Hebron and from August 6, 2011 through December 5, 2011 I was voluntarily homeless in Chicago. Today, I am the Executive Director of Project Primetime, the organization that spawned from the entire process and I am also working on publishing a book about my homeless experience.
Going into my senior year at DePaul University, like many students, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do after graduation. I always had big dreams and ambitions but I began to wonder if I would have to give all those up and settle in “the real world.” One night a friend and I had a conversation and we somehow landed on the topic of homelessness. We had so many questions about it: what was that like? What could be done to help? We wondered, “What if someone were to voluntarily become homeless for an extended period of time? Imagine what they could learn and share with others.” I, myself, had numerous questions about the subject but I didn’t think researching statistics would provide the answers. I also knew there was a six month window between graduation and when Uncle Sam started collecting on my federal student loans. If I were to ever do something like this, that would be the time; I decided I would do it, become voluntarily homeless on the streets of Chicago.
One of the most difficult things to do was tell my parents. I spent much deliberation deciding whether or not to tell them because I knew telling them would cause a lot of pain but in the end I thought they deserved to know. The three of us sat down at the dinner table; I had a speech written and prepared but when I began talking the moment overwhelmed me. Tears flowed down my face, trembling overtook my body, and I physically could not speak; the immense emotions caused a paralysis and I repeatedly tried to collect myself but failed each time. I asked my parents if we could retry it again the next night and they calmly agreed with smiles, unknowing of what was about to proceed.
The next night I was more composed than the previous. I delivered my entire speech where at the end, I expressed to them that I would become voluntarily homeless. They were stunned and unable to speak but my mother’s tears clearly articulated how she felt. There was also a slight bitterness in their reactions because it would not just be me experiencing the burden of being homeless, my parents had to live everyday knowing their son lived off the streets in Chicago. The conversation was enormously emotional but ultimately, they understood that nothing they said would have changed my mind. I had always been fortunate that they always supported the decisions I made in my life and even though they were not thrilled by my choice, they backed me.
I became homeless in August for the practical reason that my lease ended. Originally from Wisconsin, I brought all my belongings home and returned to Chicago by train on August 6th with only a backpack carrying the following items: three t-shirts, three pairs of boxers, three pairs of socks, a long sleeved t-shirt, a hoodie, a pair of basketball shorts, a pair of jeans, swimtrunks, and flip-flops. Other items I brought were an umbrella, notebook, map of Chicago, water bottle, and travel-sized toiletries. My wallet contained my Wisconsin Driver’s License, photocopy of my health insurance, Chicago Public Library card, and around $140 cash.
During the first month homeless slept in bushes, buildings, and other random spots; and for food I ate at soup kitchens. Then, I joined a shelter program called Cornerstone Community Outreach located on the north side of Chicago. Every night though, I rode in a van that took others and myself to an overnight shelter at Walls Memorial Church on the west side. To get back to Cornerstone every day we were given a public transportation pass once at Walls.
During this time I didn’t just learn about homelessness; my experience involved topics including poverty, education, crime, the judicial system, public policy, race, and more. Most importantly, I gained a fuller understanding human phenomenon. With friends I met in the shelter system, I explored a range of emotions that I never dealt with before. Together, we became incredibly familiar with the meaning of the word “dignity” and found ourselves noticing the smallest nuances of the world around us. I remember one night I met someone named Ronald; We sat across each other at the dinner table and while we ate our mushy spaghetti he stopped his fork halfway to his mouth, paused, and stared at it proclaiming, “I haven’t seen one of these in a while, a metal fork, the joint only has plastic.” He just got out prison a couple days ago, where he spent his last 25 plus years.
While homeless, I visited the Loyola Information Commons on a regular basis, acquired a guest pass to use the internet, and journaled in a Google Doc. I have taken excerpts from my journal and combined them with reflections to create a book that I plan to publish. But to make this literary work the best it can be I need help which is why I decided to create a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds. Shortly, I will launch a campaign and I would be extremely grateful for any support! Throughout the duration of the campaign I will post excerpts from my book in my blog; if you would like to stay updated about my Kickstarter campaign and progress, please sign up below!