Arloa Sutter - Transcript

Transcript of Arloa Sutter
Interviewer: Dorothy Nygren
Date: 12/12/2013
Place: Chicago, IL
Transcriber: Martin Stewart
Time: 24:41

Copyright © 2014 Edgewater Historical Society

DN: This is Dorothy Nygren of the Edgewater Historical Society interviewing our 2014 Living Treasure Arloa Sutter who will tell her story about her accomplishments and background in Edgewater. Today is December 12, 2013 and I am at the offices of Breakthrough, a very impressive site. Congratulations again Arloa and maybe we’ll just start the interview with a brief talk about where you were born and your early years.


AS: I was born in a rural community in Northwest Iowa, a little town named George outside on a farm. A small family farm where we had chickens and pigs and cows and I got to milk cow every day when I was a teenager so it was a very…a very beautiful environment to grow up in as a child.

DN: How did you come to Edgewater?

AS: Edgewater was a place that I lived in for a number of years before I met my husband and then we became the pastor and the pastor’s wife at the First Evangelical Free Church at the corner of Berwyn and Ashland. That was when we moved into Andersonville.

DN: And what year was that?

AS: That was in 1988.

DN: And can you tell a little bit about your experiences in Edgewater and how you first became involved in community activities?


AS: I love Edgewater as being part of the local church there we had a number of people come to our doors wanting assistance and as we listened to their stories sometimes we find out that it their needs were kind of complicated. So I opened a storefront at the corner of Berwyn and Ashland and began to welcome people in from the community, which then turned into a drop-in center for the homeless. Eventually we opened a shelter on the church gymnasium floor and began to provide lots of different services to the homeless including housing, placement and employment training and even started a little business called Clean Street and contracted with the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce to pick up garbage on the street and we were able to pay people.

DN: I found that part very fascinating. So maybe you could elaborate on Clean Street a little bit and why you felt it was important for the people you were giving assistance to… to actually go out and pick up garbage and get paid for it.


AS: I think it was an interesting and wonderful kind of agreement that came together. It was Jan Baxter who was the owner of the Landmark and was the president of the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce who noticed people out picking up trash on Clark Street. I thought it was more dignifying to give people a paycheck than a handout. And when our homeless guests had legitimate needs for cash it was…they were very happy to do that. They would go out and pick up trash for an hour and I would give them $10. So when Jan noticed people picking up garbage on Clark Street that was a curiosity to her and she came and asked me could the Chamber of Commerce strike up an agreement with Breakthrough where we then had a contract where the Chamber paid us money to hire men and women to clean the street.


Our motto has always been dignifying care. We don’t want to just be a flophouse, soup kitchen. And I think it was good for the community to see people rather than panhandling actually out there working. I think it did a lot to kind of sensitize people to the needs of the homeless and see them as real people that had something to offer to the community.

DN: I think that it was likely a two-way street. Everybody was benefited from it. The community was benefited from it and the people who were doing the work werebenefited from it as well.

AS: It was a win-win.

DN: It was a win-win. Now in terms of First Free and Breakthrough, you had started from a little storefront, no actually in the church. Right?

AS: Right. The storefront was owned by the church. It was the church library on Sundays, so it wasn’t used during the week.

DN: So that was your idea to start it. But it has certainly grown. So maybe we can track a little bit of that from an individual. Did you have a board of directors or how did that evolve?


AS: I did. Because the church was concerned about liability and we often knew that we could probably raise money from outside sources if we were not the church receiving the money. So I did set up a board of directors, a small group from the church. And we took on the title Breakthrough and became a separate 501C3 from the church. Really, to serve the community, that was our mission and our goal. And of course it’s grown dramatically. We actually out grew that facility and that site and moved everything to the West side. But it really had its moorings and its foundation in Edgewater.

DN: What was the year you actually formalized Breakthrough as a separate entity from the church?

AS: 1992

DN: 1992. And how many years were you in Edgewater?


AS: We were there until 2008. So I don’t know how many years that is. I‘d have to do the math. We were there for 16 years. That’s right, and used that storefront. Eventually we used a two flat down the street to provide some of our services. We were still sleeping guys at the church until 2000. And by sleeping I mean providing safe dignifying housing overnight for thirty men.

DN: Was that year-round or during the winter or….

AS: It was year-round.

DN: Year-round. And as far as meals you were providing?

AS: Breakfast lunch and dinner every day. I think on the weekends until about 2004 we were not open on the weekends and eventually opened up 24/7.

DN: And in addition to providing breakfast lunch and dinner and a safe sleeping condition you were also doing some training and some outreach for them. Can you describe that a little bit?


AS: Well, our training involved 12 step groups. You know, it became clear to me after meeting lots of people that there were some buckets that you could put the needs into: one was housing, so we hired a housing specialist. We got some subsidized units through the Chicago low income housing trust fund. So we were actually able to provide component housing with wraparound services and housing placement in the community where there was…where we could find affordable housing. The housing of course if someone is homeless is the biggest need. But there are also recovery services. We had an intensive outpatient recovery program on Ashland over there by the church for a number of years..and have always had 12 step groups and licensed clinical social workers who have addictions counseling certificates, providing that kind of help.

So it’s housing, recovery, mental health care. We have a psychiatrist who comes on-site, and counselors where we can help refer people to get the proper care that they need and the medication. And the other big one is employment and that was of course Clean Street was first born out of that mission to help people actually get jobs. It’s just a myth that homeless people don’t want to work, that they’re lazy. They’re not. They’ve just had so many crippling experiences… that it’s really hard for them to find employment.

DN: I think that many people are coming to appreciate that, and change their perception of the bounty that exists in the United States. This generation, many older people have been disenfranchised. Younger people coming out of schools are finding it very difficult. And I think one of the effects of that is to maybe jar their perceptions of how easy it is to get a job.


AS: That’s right. And especially if you’ve grown up in poverty and maybe have been in schools that have been underperforming and possibly in a community area where there might be police profiling and so there’s a lot of….You know once you have a prison record it’s really difficult. You can’t access public housing with a felony. Most employers won’t hire people with a record and it’s hard to find jobs that are suitable for people who have struggled and grown-up with a lot of struggle.

DN: Now did you have a background in this before you started?

AS: No I didn’t. No…Actually I do now have a doctorate of ministry. But actually when I moved to Edgewater I had to finish up long distance at Western Illinois in Macomb to get my degree. And my background has been: I drove an ambulance, I hung wallpaper and then I was devoted to the community through the work of the church in partnership with my husband who was the pastor.

DN: Now…so you as an individual saw a need and stepped in and started…

AS: With a lot of help.

DN: …with a lot of help and started addressing that need in the community. Not because this was your job. You weren’t being paid to do it. It was just something you saw the need and you jumped in to address it. And it seems as though it’s become a lifelong issue for you.

AS: My life. Definitely; it’s my calling. It’s what I was created to do. It’s wonderful when you find your sweet spot and you know you’re doing what God’s created you to do.

DN: I’d like to go back to the interaction with the community. It would seem that you were addressing the needs of a large number of homeless people, breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as, oh, only men, right? It was only men?

AS: We were open to anybody during the day, but at night, since it was a men’s shelter, primarily men.

DN: And so what was the reaction initially of the immediate neighborhood, the people on the street around First Free, would you say.


AS: We’ve always had very good community relationships; and I know that is not true for all homeless providers. I think it’s because we lived in the neighborhood. We were conscientious about the needs of the community. We put guidelines in place so we didn’t have lines waiting outside, people with big bags because we had storage opportunity. We made sure that people signed in during the day, throughout the day, for their place at night and so there was no kind of system where they had to wait in line to see if they were going to be able to spend the night. I mean… we had guys cleaning the street, so it was a real mutual kind of beneficial relationship.

DN: I’m just really curious, because so many homeless shelters seem to have… are at odds with the community because they have not established this relationship. So… and you didn’t come from a background of training, to do this. So, I’m just curious to… how one goes about doing it? For example if I wanted to start a homeless shelter, addressing the needs of homeless people, what would be the advice you might give me to make it a successful one?


AS: I think when you’re out and you see people panhandling… you know Andersonville and Edgewater has always been very open minded and generous in spirit, I think. I remember we had Ray, who was this bearded guy with long hair, and he always had three or four carts and people would give him things. He would bring me things that people gave him because he had more than enough. And that spirit of generosity and compassion and care for those who probably are struggling with mental illness or other issues, I think it’s a great credit to the community. So I think it’s tapping into that. It’s talking about – we don’t want Ray out there freezing at night and so can we take him in to a safe place out of our sense of care.

We care about animals; we care about people. So we are going to do what we can to really show compassionate care; and to kind of change this mindset that they’re all criminals and lazy and bums, because they’re not. That has to do with relationships. It has to do with introducing the community to some wonderful and inspiring people who are overcoming tremendous odds… and having that mutually beneficial relationship where…and sure there are people who because of their struggles have turned maybe hateful, but even that, we can understand that and we can seek to remedy that, I think.

DN: When you said that you thought the people of Edgewater were very welcoming and generous in spirit, do you think this model you created, started in Edgewater, could have been started say in the Gold Coast or Humboldt Park where you are now or some other area in the city?


AS: Absolutely. I think it’s a myth that property values go down when there are homeless services. I don’t see that. I don’t see a track record of that because what happens is we’re caring for people. Then we’re bringing them into a place of support and security. And so they’re not out committing crimes. The people who stay with us at Breakthrough aren’t out committing crimes. They have food and shelter and they’re on the track. They’re setting goals for themselves- things that they want to achieve. I think that brings the housing values up. I think that makes for an environment, a community where all people are cared for and looked after and connected. It’s really weaving this…this network of support around everybody- children, adults- everybody.

DN: I was just getting, coming from the other side of it, the community being welcoming. Do you think that every community would be as welcoming as Edgewater?

AS: Well, so….. In our field there is what we call “nimbyism.” Not In My Back Yard. Bless you for doing what you’re doing, but I don’t want you doing that in my back yard. I think there is some fear; it’s the fear of the unknown. To be honest, I think some providers maybe having had this sensitivity to the community. I don’t think it’s dignified to have people sitting outside with a pile of bags waiting to get in some place. Occasionally we do have people here in the morning waiting to get in here, but they know they will be able to get in. You have to limit the number of people that you serve so that you can do it with dignity. We know that there is a certain number here, even for our lunch time where we’re open to up to sixty-five. But that’s it. Then we have to close the door because it’s not a safe environment when it gets out of control. So I think you have to put those parameters in place to make sure that, it’s a controlled environment where there’s peace and safety for everybody.

DN: And so… if I’m hearing what you’re saying right is…to export your model for example, to another community, you would need to establish good community relationships; you would need to have a good model where the needs of the homeless can be safely addressed and where the community could support that as well. And I think one of the things that impressed me the most when I was reading about Breakthrough, was your idea that by having the homeless men, women, whatever, children… going and doing the Clean Street program, it provided them with a sense of self respect and dignity, that they were contributing something. So, it wasn’t just a charitable gift. They were actually earning what they were receiving and paying back in a way what they were doing. And… I’m not sure how that model works with other models for homeless people. Is this common to other models, do you think Arloa?


AS: There are wonderful providers in the city of Chicago and doing great work among the homeless. Breakthrough. I think we’re the best. That’s my judgment. But it’s a challenge because the need is great and I think it is a replicable model. I think it terms of… there are certain values we put in place. High on the list is relationships, dignity, treating people with respect and listening to their stories, not just assuming we know what people need or want. So it’s those kind of soft things that yes, of course, we can replicate.

DN: Now you said you thought Breakthrough was the best. And I know you have received certain awards and so on. And I’d like you to mention that briefly.

AS: Awards. Well, we get awards. Yeah. We got something from the…. So we were in the Midwest Living magazine. The Clean Street project I know won the “hometown pride” award. And so that was fun. I’m trying to think the name of the community group in River… Ravenswood Community Council gave us an award. So, yes we have had a number of very nice affirmations for the work that we do.

DN: You said that you taught the homeless to be ambassadors in the community instead of panhandlers. So maybe you could say that in your own words.


AS: So, part of the job training for homeless people, for people who are unemployed, anybody, is to teach them the soft skills. And one of them would be to be an ambassador in the community where…we taught them you need to say, “Hi” to the merchants when you go by. The merchants loved it. They felt that having the presence of these Clean Street workers out there was providing some safety for the community because they were eyes on the street. And they would come by and greet and say “Hi” and wave. So that was part of teaching them customer service and how to conduct themselves in public in a positive way which I think benefited both the merchants understanding of homelessness and the employees who were learning these skills for future use.

DN: Now you are in a beautiful facility in East Garfield Park. I think you said this is your second facility and you are building a third. So, maybe you can talk about this facility and what you offer here.


AS: Right. So, in 2008 we moved everything to the west side because of the need for space and we are sitting in a building that houses thirty homeless men. And then there are thirty-five permanent units towards the back of the building. Breakfast lunch and dinner every day. Licensed clinical social workers that provide counseling, a trauma group, you have a male initiative group; we have 12 step groups, medical care. We have a clinic downstairs where doctors provide medical care. We have a psychiatrist who comes to do evaluations. So it’s not just a place to stay because it’s transitional. We’re trying to get people into permanent housing. And so it’s always a hand up not a handout. It’s a place where people get their lives together. They set goals that they want to achieve. They have case managers who walk with them through the process of achieving their goals. Now that’s in this facility. We have another one that has thirty women…the same kind of scenario there, homeless adult women. And then we have a youth development in the community of East Garfield Park with a variety of sports activity, athletics, a running club, arts and sciences…a robotics club, film making club, after school tutoring and then a preschool.

DN: It’s quite amazing what a little kernel of an idea has generated. Is there anything that you feel is special about Edgewater that you’d like to talk about?


AS: I love Edgewater. I love the energy there. I love the diversity. I don’t think…I have never lived in a community that has more multi ethnicity and backgrounds of culture. The restaurants, stores and I saw a lot of that change. I remember when…some of our friends in Edgewater will remember Happy Foods on Clark Street and Harriets. Andy’s restaurant, Reza’s and of course you got Starbucks. That was a big day when we got Starbucks. But really it’s very alive, full of energy and warmth. I feel I could walk down Clark Street, I could, I’ve been gone for a while now….I could walk down Clark Street and know people and people would say, “Hi” and be friendly. It’s a wonderful place.

DN: What advice would you give younger people who are starting out with their mission?


AS: A mission like Breakthrough….there’s a lot of work to do in the world. I think I gained more from my work with Breakthrough than any homeless guest did or any kid. I learned so much. I think if you expose yourself to a variety of thoughts and backgrounds and people from different unique perspectives, I think you only grow. So I guess if I were to give advice to anybody…. I don’t know if I have advice to give, but it’s just to do the next right thing. And what’s the next right thing? Start small. Know that if you do things well it will be blessed and it will grow. And Breakthrough now has fifty staff and a $4 million budget and we’re building a $16 million facility. It all started out of a little store front in Edgewater. And it’s grown, because I think, because we’re responding to the needs of people and doing it in a dignifying loving caring way.

DN: Now I’ve asked all the questions that I have to ask and I’ve gotten beautiful answers. Is there anything else you’d like to contribute to this interview… because it’s your story and it’s going to be a permanent part of our record?

AS: I appreciate it. I’m honored to be a part of this Living Treasure. That’s very humbling to me. I learned so much in Edgewater. It was a real formative time for me. And I am grateful for the opportunity to have lived there. I still have many friends in Edgewater…get back there often…l love to eat and be with people in Edgewater. So thank you for your great work.