CHAMPAIGN — Vern Chounard is moving into a home of his own with everything he owns in the world:
A sleeping bag and blankets, a CD player, a bible, a ragged pair of tennis shoes and the clothes on his back.
For eight of the past 11 years, he's been living on the streets of Champaign, so the idea of sleeping in a warm bed tonight (Tuesday, Dec. 20) makes him feel "blessed, happy and joyful," he says.
"I'm getting too old to be out there on the streets," he adds.
Chounard, 50, is the first homeless person to be helped by a new organization called C-U at Home.
The organization's founder, Melany Jackson, has been racing against the onset of the winter to find indoor living spaces for more than a dozen homeless people most vulnerable to dying on the streets of Champaign-Urbana.
Chounard will be living in a small, one-bedroom rental house in Champaign.
The owners are donating it rent-free through the end of March, but C-U at Home will still have to pay for the cost of the utilities and rent come April 1 until Chounard can foot the expenses.
He'd sure like a job, he says, and he's got plenty of work experience.
"I love to cook," he says.
Chounard dropped out of high school in 10th grade, but had started working for Twin City Recycling when he was about 13, he said.
He enlisted in the Army when he was 18, served for a couple of months and was honorably discharged due to breathing ailments, he said.
Then he held several cooking jobs at restaurants, among them at the former Jumer's, McDonald's, Bob Evans, Denny's and KFC.
In addition to cooking, he can do carpentry and work on cars, he says.
Life on the street in Champaign has been risky, he says. He rotated sleeping spots, but he's been robbed, hit by a car on his bike — and he's been sick a lot.
His food comes from Daily Bread's soup kitchen in downtown Champaign, supplemented by the sandwiches and pizza he gets for free sometimes from Jimmy John's and Pizza Hut shops, he says.
He's also been in and out of 10 rehab programs for alcohol, nine of which "I put myself in there," Chounard says.
But he's going to daily Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and as of Monday can claim 11 days of sobriety, he says.
"I'm doing better," he adds.
Jackson, who quit her paid jobs and sold all of her belongings to launch C-U at Home, sees this first donation of free rental space for Chounard as nothing short as a Christmas miracle.
"It's totally God," she says.
Other donors provided the furniture and supplies to get Chounard started in his new home. Monetary donations are still needed to pay the utilities and the rent after March 31, until Chounard can support himself, Jackson says.
She also continues to look for housing for other vulnerable homeless people in Champaign-Urbana.
Deana Hammock of Champaign said she and her husband, Luke, had bought the house Chounard will be living in with the intention of using it for ministry, and a cousin heard about Jackson's quest and let them know about it.
Both she and her husband are working part-time at the moment, so this arrangement will help them, too, by keeping utilities on for the winter, Hammock said.
"It's been God all the way around. He's just been there and made things work out," Hammock said.
She said there are so many rental houses that are vacant right now, and other homeless people who could use them.
"If a property owner could just take one house out of the many hundred they own and dedicate it back to the community and help somebody back on their feet," she said.
Chounard won't be alone as he makes the transition. He'll have a friend and guide in volunteer John Hancock of Savoy.
Hancock said he'll be helping Chounard get his paperwork in order, helping him enroll in a high school diploma equivalency program, giving him rides and otherwise acting as his advocate.
"This is obviously a huge transition for him," Hancock said. "It's going to be a learning process for all of us."
Hancock, 65, said he got involved in C-U at Home because he was looking for something meaningful to do after retiring from the postal service.
"What better thing can you do but help someone," he said. "The one thing with a relationship with God and Christ — you realize how blessed you are and feel a call to step outside yourself and help those in need."