Lela Venton dropped out of high school at age 17 when her first child was born, in 1972. Henry Laney lost his CTA bus-driving job about ten years ago when he got hooked on drugs. And Gregory Johnson’s been homeless for the last five years, drifting back and forth between Michigan and Chicago.

But over the last year Venton, Laney, and Johnson have taken steps toward full-time employment and complete self-sufficiency as the result of several innovative programs being offered by the Inner Voice, a little-known west-side social-service agency. Venton is taking courses at the Voice to prepare for her high school equivalency exam, Laney is a counselor and van driver at the Voice, and Johnson is participating in the Homewatchers Program, which offers homeless men six months’ of free lodging in vacant CHA units.

The key to the Voice’s success is that it’s operated by men and women who have battled back from the edge of desperation themselves.

“We’re not some do-gooders coming in from the outside–we’ve all been there,” says Greg Turner, the Voice’s program director. “Some of us were homeless, some of us were addicts or alcoholics. We’re not going to feed our clients any lines, and we aren’t going to buy any lines our clients feed us.”

The Voice operates out of a squat brick building beneath the el tracks at Lake and Ashland, a few blocks from the Henry Horner housing complex. There’s nothing big or flashy about its offices. None of its seven staffers makes more than $13,000 a year, and it operates on about $200,000 a year. Yet it offers about a dozen different classes and programs designed to help people who’ve been out of work ease back into the working world, serving about 500 clients a year. Next year the Voice hopes to offer computer training in addition to adult-education and job-skills classes.

“We get most of the money to run our programs from the city’s Department of Human Services,” says Turner. “Mostly we live from hand to mouth. I won’t lie to you–we’re always broke. We’re always looking for money.

“We do the basics. We train people how to write a resume, how to fill out an application, how to take an interview, how to handle disputes on the job. We have clothes they can wear to an interview–shirts, ties, and jackets. That way you can look nice, like everyone else. No one has to know your business.”

The agency was founded in 1984 by Reverend Robert Johnson, who had just been fired from his job with a local church. “I wasn’t homeless, but I was close,” says Johnson. “We started with a drop-in center on Madison. We were open seven days a week, feeding people. It was a small, simple, mundane place for people to come in out of the cold.”

One person who walked in off the street was Turner, who was homeless and hooked on cocaine. “I’m now working in the same community where I used to sell dope,” says Turner. “I’m not proud of what I did. I didn’t realize what I was doing to my people. I thought I could make a lot of money dealing drugs, but I wasn’t going to take the drugs. That’s like saying you’re going to get into bed with a beautiful woman but you’re not going to sleep with her. I got seduced into trying it, and then I got hooked and I lost everything–my wife, my house, my credit cards. A lot of the guys I associated with are either dead or in a penitentiary.”

By 1989, Turner was off drugs. “Before I came here I had several jobs as a salesman,” says Turner. “You name it, I sold it–fluorescent light bulbs, greeting-card racks, radio advertising, Time-Life books. I was always good at selling things, always had a gift for talking. Words are just puffs of air coming out of your mouth. If it came out of the other end, you’d call it something else. I got tired of selling stuff. I wanted to do something more with my life.”

Specifically, Turner wanted to take advantage of his own experiences on the street. “Life in a shelter is a treadmill,” says Turner. “They get up at 5:30, and then you’re out on the street by 6:30. You get your lunch from one place and your clothes from somewhere else. Then you got to go someplace else for dinner or sleeping. You’re always worried about eating–you don’t want to miss any meals because you don’t know which one will be your last.”

Working with Johnson, Turner helped open a transitional house at 4458 W. Jackson, where clients live in a group setting and are offered substance-abuse programs, motivational lessons, and testimonials from ex-addicts to help them make the transition from homelessness to self-sufficiency.

“You have to have pride and dignity in yourself, you can’t go through life feeling you’re no good,” says Laney. “You get into this pattern when you’re on the street. All you’re thinking about is survival. You’re not thinking about your future.”

Laney grew up on the near west side, graduated from Wells High School, served in the Army, and went to work as a bus driver. He lost his job when he became addicted to drugs. For the last ten years he’s been in and out of jobs. Eventually he found his way to the Voice’s transitional home.

“Guys on the street, we sound alike after a while,” says Laney. “I can spot the lies. You come in here and you tell the counselor, ‘Oh man, I got a job, but I couldn’t make it today ’cause I was sick.’ Or ‘I got a car, but I forgot the keys. So can I borrow some money for the bus?’ You don’t want to admit that you’re really on the street.”

Many of the Voice’s clients, like Laney, have marketable skills. Others, like Venton, are trying to shape a lifetime of experiences into a career. “I’m a mother and a grandmother,” says Venton. “I’ve raised kids, taken care of them when they were sick, and made sure they got well. I believe I have a gift for dealing with people. I believe I have a missionary gift. I’d like to be a nurse.”

But Venton says she cannot find a hospital or nursing home willing to hire her because she doesn’t have a high school diploma.

“I was going to Crane High School when I got pregnant,” says Venton. “My mother said, ‘You made the baby, take care of the baby.’ So I dropped out. Now I have five children and I’m a grandmother.”

Venton and her children live in the Henry Horner homes. “We stay there mainly because of the rent–it’s only $76,” says Venton. “It’s not so bad. But I would like to own my own home.”

For the past year she’s been taking adult-education courses at the Voice, preparing for her high school equivalency exam.

“I was on the bus coming down Ashland, and I saw the sign outside the Inner Voice talking about GED training,” says Venton. “I stopped in, and they said I could register right now. Ten days later I was taking the class. That was a year ago January. I’m not too scared about the test. There’s math and science and writing and social studies, where they ask you about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, things like that. The writing part is what worries me. You have to write a 250-word essay. I’ve been studying. I’m ready for it. If I had to do it all again, I would have stayed in school, even after my baby was born. I would have figured something out. But what do you know when you’re just a teenager? I’ve learned a lot since then. I’m ready to go out and work.”

The Voice’s latest effort is the Homewatchers Program, which was designed in conjunction with the CHA and the state’s Department of Public Aid. “Since last year, the state doesn’t give people general assistance, they make people ‘earn’ it,” says Turner. “The state calls it the Earnfare Program. They say they’re trying to give people work experience instead of just giving them general assistance. I’ve got some problems with Earnfare. How are you going to get someone a job if they don’t have the skills to work? But anyway, with Earnfare you earn your general assistance by taking on some sort of responsibility.”

A home watcher lives in any one of the CHA’s 6,000 abandoned units. “We’re supposed to sort of be the CHA’s eyes and ears in a building and make sure that no one comes in and damages things,” says Johnson. “They provide us with a sleeping bag and a little TV. Last week I was in Henry Horner, and this week they’ll send me someplace else. It’s a lot better than sleeping on the street.”

Johnson, 41, grew up in Chicago and attended Austin High School. At one time he made his living as a janitor in an apartment building in Flint, Michigan.

“I’m a maintenance man by training–at one point I went to school for that in Michigan,” says Johnson. “The thing is, I never got my heating and cooling. If you look in the papers, you’ll see that most jobs require that heating and cooling. I have carpeting and plumbing, but I need that heating and cooling if I’m going to take care of the boilers and air conditioners.”

Johnson says he intends to take maintenance classes at a trade school. “Having a regular place to stay settles me,” says Johnson. “The only thing is that you can only be in the program for six months. But at least for those six months I’ve got a place to stay and be settled and have some time to think.”

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