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An Addiction to Advocacy Overcame Homelessness

Delegates from the Other America, Part 2

New America Media, Feature, Khalil Abdullah Posted: Sep 03, 2008

Editor's Note: On September 6, the Marguerite Casey Foundation's Equal Voice for America's Families Campaign will culminate with as many as 16,000 family delegates attending conventions in three cities to talk about issues they want to put on the national radar as the country prepares for the presidential election. In the second of a five-part series, NAM editor Khalil Abdullah who has reported on the campaign from local town halls across the country -- profiles these delegates, parents-turned-grassroots activists. Their personal stories center mainly on protecting their families from the ravages of recession, mortgage meltdowns, high incarceration rates, anti-immigrant raids. At stake is the survival of Americas safety net, working families. NAM's coverage of this issue is underwritten by the Marguerite Casey Foundation.

Charles Jenkins may yet serve as a poster child for community activism, despite his past battles with drug addiction and homelessness.

At age 53, Jenkins recalls the heyday of his youth with a touch of nostalgia. I organized the teens on my block so that the gangbangers couldnt recruit members. If Uncle Sam wasnt going to draft us, we sure werent going to let anybody else do it -- Disciples, Latin Kings, none of them it aint happening! he says laughing, naming two of Chicagos well-known street gangs.

By his own testimony, Jenkins has been a leader all through grade school, high school, and beyond. Im what you call a go-getter, he says, noting that he is looking forward to September 6. On that day he will serve as a delegate representing the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) at a national Equal Voice for Americas Families town hall meeting in Chicago (two simultaneous town halls will be held in Birmingham and Los Angeles).

Over the past year, he notes that he already has attended four or five town halls in Chicago, all sponsored by the Marguerite Casey Foundation. These, others like them across the country, as well as the September 6 meetings, are part of an effort to bring into sharper public focus the often stark choices faced by families, choices with consequences that make it difficult to climb the increasingly steeper path to income security and social stability.

In my opinion, youre impoverished if youre making $50,000 or less, especially with a family, Jenkins says. You have to be somewhat of a wizard at times, to make the meals work; clothing. Fifty thousand or less is hand-to-mouth. Everything goes up but the wages.

Here in Chicago, the minimum wage job, and Ive worked my share, comes with no benefits and barely holidays, Jenkins contends. Thats the type of society we have allowed ourselves to become.

Earlier this year, Jenkins served as a CCH delegate to an Equal Voice special session. I worked on the policy packet, a four-day policy forum where we hammered out policies.

Jenkins says he was honored to have been selected by his peers at CCH for the task, designed to distill concerns from town halls across the country to produce a comprehensive policy platform. It was spiritually enriching, informative, enlightening, and an opportunity that few people are blessed to have.

Jenkins says people from all over the globe who now inhabit Chicagos neighborhoods turned out for the meeting. However, he is very aware that his vocal opposition to what he calls blanket amnesty for undocumented immigrants was contentious and likely will be again on September 6. But, he emphasizes, I need to have my say.

Jenkins sees efforts to provide amnesty for immigrants, in part, as an end game to displace African-Americans with lower wage workers. He also argues that amnesty is an insult to those who have struggled through Americas legal immigration process.

As an African-American, he says he makes no apologies for championing the concerns of his people and is a forceful spokesman for self-reliance. African-American communities have a host of issues to confront, but, if we dont build commerce so that the money earned in the communities stays there long enough to do some good in the hood, the profit from goods and services in those neighborhoods will continue to flow to other ethnic groups. I dont have any animosity toward them, Jenkins says, Im just looking to resolve our own problems.

Sometimes those problems are personal. Jenkins own life veered off course when he indulged in drugs with the enthusiasm he has now channels into community organizing. I didnt even have a drug of choice, he recalls with a self-deprecating chuckle. The use of alcohol, whatever was available, resulted in drug addiction, the whole ball of wax. Eventually, after bouncing among the homes of relatives, he found himself homeless, moving from one shelter to another.

In 1991, after two and a half years adrift, Jenkins came into a "warming center" -- a place of refuge to ward off frostbite, hypothermia, and hunger. The facility hosted several organizations, including CCH. Through a CCH counselor, Jenkins became at first captivated by, then immersed in the organizations advocacy on affordable housing and homelessness. Being of service was an incentive for me to kick my habit, Jenkins says.

He decided to pursue his education and got back into the ranks of working society. Of CCH, Jenkins says, whenever Im called on, Im there. He is a member of its Speakers Bureau and, as advocate, has traveled to Springfield, the Illinois capital, to educate state law on the needs and views of their constituents. He says advocates need to get in the faces of legislators in-between the breaks in their session so they can get the grass roots view.

Jenkins is delighted that his six children and seven grandchildren may also make it to Navy Pier for the September 6 town hall, an event for which he has high hopes. I expect it to lead to more town halls, to get more people involved. Its bringing people together for basic human rights that were all entitled to.

After all, Jenkins concludes, the sun shines on all of us.

Related Articles:

Families in Economic Freefall--and Off the Political Radar

A Beacon Shines from Mississippis Delta

Poor Border Town Spells Out Top Priorities

Equal Voice Campaign

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