You might imagine the director of an institution named the Chicago Christian Industrial League to be a grim, black-frocked fellow, passing out bowls of greasy soup.

But the director of the Chicago Christian Industrial League at 123 S. Green St., a bright and homey place, is Rick Roberts, a genial, energetic young man who wears suspenders and brightly colored ties.

Roberts came to the 80-year-old shelter on the near west side by a long and varied path. Ironically enough, the west side is where it began. “I grew up at 4100 W. Maple St.–right in the heart of the old Fillmore Police District,” he explains. “Where I grew up, our claim to fame was that we had the highest crime rate in the United States. . . . I had my nose broken twice before I was 5 in gang fights, and I had a knife shoved in my ribs when I was 11 years old and the zipper on my coat saved my life. When I was 17, my head was split open so wide, the doctors said one millimeter more and I would have been history.” He laughs cheerfully, as though remembering a prank pulled on a teacher. He recalls growing up in poverty, in a mixed neighborhood of poor blacks, whites, and Hispanics. His alcoholic father used to disappear, wandering the streets for days and weeks at a time.

“I was determined to escape the west side–to break the chains that I felt bound me to a life of poverty and unhappiness.”

Roberts worked hard, went to college, and got a job as a recreation therapist at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. From there he joined the staff of the Fox River Rehabilitation Center, got involved in hospital administration, and eventually became a public-relations man for nonprofit organizations. A family illness took him to Florida, where he hosted a radio talk-show program on which he interviewed clergy on social issues of the day. WTTW got word of the show, and invited him up to Chicago to do a pilot. But the pilot didn’t sell, and Roberts found work as a businessman. He carried a briefcase in the Loop, had a nice flat, and enjoyed the amenities of “access to the system.” “I was finally out of the west side. I was finally making money.”

But suddenly this “access” seemed unimportant. When his best friend and his father both died, and his wife developed cancer, Roberts’s priorities changed. “So I reassessed my life and where I was going. This was no road-to-Damascus type of thing, there was no beaming light from heaven or a voice from God or anything, but there was a sense that I needed to go back to where I belonged,” Roberts said. “I’ve found that coming back home here–and that’s what the league has become to me–allowed me to reestablish ties to my late father.”

The skills of a PR man, therapist, administrator, and ex-poor person all come in handy in running the league, which Roberts calls one of the largest shelters in Illinois. On any given day, 400 men and women are in the shelter, either living there or just escaping the weather for the night.

The emergency shelter houses 175 to 200 men per night. Anyone who wants to escape the cycle of spending nights in the gutter can go into the program shelter. The league will give him a full-time job, picking up donations for the league’s huge, two-story thrift shop on Halsted Street, for instance. He’ll get food and shelter, and a small salary for his job. Men who have a small income, like social security, can move into the facility’s low-income residential hotel, which charges an average of $100 a month. Meals are provided at cost to hotel residents.

The league has two programs for women. The Firehouse, so called because it’s located in an old firehouse on the league property, is the only emergency drop-in shelter for women in Chicago, Roberts says. Up to 75 women can stay at the center. Women also have a transition living program.

No matter what program residents are in, Roberts insists that no one tries to “pound the Bible into them.” The focus, he says, is strictly ecumenical.

“I think that the socioeconomic system we live in is such that it’s inevitable that we’re going to have homeless people,” Roberts says. “It’s not a matter of extending the safety net or increasing public assistance or social security–those aren’t the issues. The issues are that we’re disconnected.

“We have the crumbling of neighborhoods, the breakdown of families, the disregard for people because they’re different from us, sexism, racism, all the other isms,” he says. With the church, Roberts explains, or a neighborhood, or an extended family weaving together to form a net under an individual, the loss of a job, a house fire, a huge medical expense, might hurt, but not necessarily destroy. An uncle might be around to offer a spare bedroom, or a job at the plant, or the church might be there for guidance, for rootedness. But when there’s no family and no community, a setback can be devastating, especially now that government safety nets have been torn apart.

Though alcoholics, drug addicts, and the mentally ill are all common victims of homelessness, Roberts repeatedly emphasizes that anyone can fall into a set of circumstances that could lead to it. Even those with homes can be homeless, according to Roberts. A successful woman with a good job and a lakefront apartment is homeless if her husband beats her and she sits in a bar all night because she’s afraid to go home.

Roberts insists that his call for an improved sense of community to solve the homeless problem is not esoteric, but very practical. But how can an individual help to create a community?

“The first step is being in touch with who you really are. And on the way, you begin to reach out to other people. Then the most striking step is to take the risk of doing something,” Roberts says. “That might mean, as it did in the civil rights movement, going out and protesting. Today it might mean going into an area that’s not real friendly and working in a soup kitchen. . . . This is not simply the agenda for change, this is the agenda for helping ourselves. If we forget about ourselves, and become martyrs, it doesn’t work.”

In the end, building a community means simply recognizing that everyone is your neighbor, Roberts says. “If you leave the Northwestern train station and you walk outside and see a guy lying there and he reeks of booze. . . . Do you really want to stop and talk to him? Do you really want to bend over? He’s drooling, maybe he’s bleeding from the side of the head because he slept on the concrete last night, do you really want to touch him? Our philosophy here is that that’s what Jesus meant when he talked about the Good Samaritan, and that’s how we are.”

On Christmas Day the league will be serving dinner between 11 AM and 2:30 PM to up to 1,000 diners. Instead of the usual soup-kitchen-style service, volunteers will serve the diners, then join them in groups of five for conversation. People interested in serving Christmas dinner can call 421-0855 for info.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.