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This Holiday season was spent like most.  My wife Jennifer and I spent Christmas day at both my parents’ house in Newark, IL, and her parents’ house in Plainfield, IL.  

On  Dec. 26th, we spent the day at Hesed House, a homeless shelter in Aurora, IL.

I would like to use my weekly blog to draw attention to some of the similarities and differences that I have noticed in the two worlds, the two Americas. John Edwards spoke of them in 2004.

I will also be sharing some of the stories and suggestions that the Hesed residents had for me.

Christmas at the Downard and Laesch homes:
Without question, the highlight of our day was receiving a call from my brother, Sgt. Pete Laesch, who is currently serving in the U.S. Army.  Pete is on leave, but took time to see his wife and son who are living in England.  For all of those who have asked, the answer is, "Pete is doing fine."

Food and drink were plentiful at both homes.  After catching up on what my brothers and in-laws were doing in their lives, the conversation shifted, as it often does, to politics.  The conversation about Iraq is no longer a debate, (as even the most conservative in the family have come to see the tragedy of it) but it still seems to be a holiday tradition to draw swords over the topic of healthcare.  Statistics, stories and ideas were discussed as we parried back and forth:
The voice of opposition:

We need to stop giving everything away... the government can’t pay for everything... no more entitlements... no universal healthcare.

My counter:

We effectively already have universal healthcare with the overuse of the emergency room, but it is the most inefficient and expensive healthcare system available, and you are already paying for everybody through uncompensated care.

I’m sure that theory-driven conversations will be part of our next family discussion, but let’s move from theory to reality.

Christmas at Hesed House:
Jennifer and I decided that we wanted to start volunteering more within our community, so on December 26th, she and I, along with several of our campaign volunteers, spent the day at Hesed House.
This is not my first time volunteering at Hesed, but it was a first for several of our campaign volunteers, and we had to take a short orientation class.  During the orientation, we were all asked to take a few minutes and listen to some of the concerns of the people who were staying at Hesed.  

When we did meet the residents, I introduced myself, and told them of my run for Congress. Questions came quickly.  Instead of cooking or serving breakfast, I ended up talking about topics ranging from police harassment, to health care and the environment.  The suggestions offered filled over five pages of my notebook.  I have included a few below, and a poem from a gentleman named Walter Ellis,III.

I initially wanted to include some statistics and stories about homelessness in this article, but they never tell the full story, and I thought that perhaps you, the reader, might consider volunteering at Hesed, and go through the orientation yourself.  And if not Hesed House, then any of the service organizations in your area. I did share one story of a homeless woman by the name of Burnett in this video.

I also met some folks who had been hired by one of my primary opponents to help gather signatures.  One gentleman was apologetic when he realized who I was, but I encouraged him to continue working for Mr. Foster. (and maybe to keep spreading John Laesch’s message as well.)  Many people already knew who I was, and another gentleman by the name of "O" even sent me a Christmas card, because I had the chance to speak with him when he stopped in our office last summer.

HEALTHCARE:
Mr. "O" then asked me about healthcare.  
He told me that he had a good-paying job until he suffered his second stroke.  He was let go, because the insurance premiums were crushing the small business where he worked.  He still has over $70,000 in medical bills, and was buried in credit card bills before losing his home.  Mr. "O," his wife, and four children now stay at Hesed House.  He works when he can find it, but it is hard to find a job when you don’t have a regular address and phone number.  

I told Mr. "O" about the health care plan I support, single payer health care, and that I was the only candidate in the race supporting this plan, and HR 676, the single payer bill presently in Congress.  There are currently 88 co-sponsors of this bill and we need more people who have the courage to stand up to the insurance and pharmaceutical lobbyists if we want to change our health care system.  

Single-payer health care is essentially Medicare for all.  If you get sick, you go to the doctor.  This health care system covers every medically necessary procedure, including mental healthcare (the first question was about mental health), dental care and preventive care.

As I started explaining the funding mechanism, I suddenly realized that I had begun campaigning. I guess it’s pretty much a reflex now, after so much time on the trail.  I stopped myself immediately, as I understood that the people I had been speaking with already grasped the nature of our healthcare crisis in ways I might never.  I should add here that Hesed does have some doctors who volunteer their services; covering some very basic medical needs.

There were several questions that centered on the fact that many homeless people are discriminated against.  This, as I’ve come to understand it, is perhaps the largest problem to overcome if you are homeless; it is the reason that so many people who slip below the poverty line don’t recover.  Here are some concerns that were voiced:

  1. "If I put down on a job application that I live at Hesed House, I know that my application is going into the garbage.  Nobody will hire a homeless person."
  1. "Police are always harassing us.  Ticketing someone who is homeless is only going to make the matter worse because nobody will hire someone who has a police record."

It seemed that the answers to these questions were more local than national, but that does not mean that I can’t work with local officials.

Many of the discussions centered on the economy, affordable housing and fair wages, fair trade and healthcare. There was one question on the environment that I did not expect:

Homeless people are in a position to do some good for our community by picking up garbage, but I wish that we could have more public recycling bins so we could sort cans, glass and paper.

I was surprised to hear the environment broached in this reality-based conversation, because it had been more focused on the current condition of peoples’ lives than it was the future of our planet.  The same person was also concerned about access around the city for bikers.  (Aurora does have some bike trails and many Hesed residents do have access to a bike)

Agreement found between the two worlds:
After lunch was served, I sat down and spoke with some folks more extensively.  There was a general feeling that the system was set up to keep people in a permanent homeless status instead of getting them out of the system.  

This was an area that one of my relatives and I had haggled over in a conversation about "entitlements" the previous day. He felt that we were throwing money at a problem that would never change, and here were people who were benefiting (perhaps benefiting is a little bit strong) from those "entitlements" who felt that the system could be re-vamped.  

Solutions to homelessness programs (not issues like living wages, national healthcare and fair trade) included:

  1. More transitional living facilities and a tested path towards success.
  1. Case workers who listen to needs and try to utilize available resources to put the homeless person in touch with those resources.
  1. Not tying government funding to head counts.  I can‘t tell you how many times I heard, "they don’t want us to leave here because the program will lose funding."

The last of these opinions brought my two worlds together.  We all agree that money should not be thrown at this or any problem; rather we should invest in real solutions- the only entitlements for American citizens should be education and opportunity.  

And as I acknowledge that my world is more comfortable than that of the homeless people I spoke with that day, I was left wondering how those much better off than myself spent their holiday.

I leave you with a poem that the author, Walter Ellis, shared with this future member of the Progressive Caucus.  
The poem is titled:
Progress

Progress, not perfection.

Perfection is a product of this world’s fantasy
Progress is a stable core of life’s reality.

In various phases of life you work to get it right.
Expecting results that will make life easy and bright.

But, you must beware for perfection isn’t there.
Step-by-step, you must progress if you dare

Wanting perfection is Ok to run through your mind,
But your goals will be reached through progress in time.

Not reaching perfection may cause you to stop
While progressing step-by-step, you may take a hop

Progress over perfection you must continue to try
Life will be better until the day you die

Progress, not perfection

By, Walter Ellis, III

Originally posted to John Laesch on Fri Dec 28, 2007 at 06:30 PM PST.

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