'Hard to take the street out of the man'
CHAMPAIGN - The bed stays empty in Vern Chounard's little house. Sleeping on the floor feels more like the hard ground he slept on for so long.
And all that food he's got now — in his own kitchen — he's not used to it, he says.
Making the move from living on the streets of Champaign into a home of his own hasn't been an easy transition for Chounard, the first person to be helped by C-U at Home, an organization looking to find homes for more than a dozen people most vulnerable to dying on the streets of Champaign-Urbana.
In the first few weeks since Chounard moved into a rental house on Dec. 20, he's returned to the streets to sleep for some of those nights. And he still turns up at the soup kitchen that fed him during some of his eight years of homelessness.
He likes his new home, Chounard says, but he also misses the streets.
"You can take the man out of the street," says John Hancock of Savoy, a volunteer who's been helping Chounard adjust to living in a house. "But it's hard to take the street out of the man."
A new life
Hancock, of Savoy, is a retired postal worker spending a few hours with Chounard nearly every day.
This past Tuesday, when Chounard is a bit late for a meeting, Hancock goes and finds him at a favorite spot around Champaign and brings him back to his house.
Chounard crosses the "Bless This House" doormat, steps inside and sits on the couch, where he also sleeps some nights, he says.
It's the couch or the living room floor, covered up with a blanket and a coat. But not the bed in the bedroom. He sleeps in the living room, he says. Better to hear someone coming up on the porch.
Chounard fingers a cross that hangs around his neck. A homeless friend once gave it to him and he always wears it, he says.
"One thing I can say is thanks to God and Jesus," he says.
This house has saved his life, says Chounard, a 50-year-old high school dropout, former restaurant cook and admitted alcoholic who had been homeless eight of the past 11 years.
No more sleeping out in the freezing cold for him, he says. But he also says it upsets him that his homeless friends can come visit, but under terms of his lease, they can't spend the night.
"I've got a lot of friends still sleeping in the cold and in the wet. And what hurts me is, I'm not able to help," he says.
Still, Chounard says, he loves to cook. And he's got plenty of food in his kitchen. In fact, there are canned goods that won't fit in the cupboards stacked up in the living room.
He can cook what he wants, when he wants, he says, "not like going to Daily Bread or one of them churches."
The people around him give him love and friendship and respect, he says.
And, long estranged from his family, he spent Christmas with a cousin. And some family members have even been to visit him at his new place.
So how did he end up back out on the street for a time?
Chounard first says he took some Excedrin for bronchitis and fell asleep in one of his old spots outside. Later, he says it was because of trouble with friends he doesn't like to talk about.
Still later, he gives another answer: "I said, 'Piss with it, I know where to survive.'"
The police came along where he was sleeping and reminded him he had a home to go to, Chounard recalls, and "I said, 'Leave me alone.'"
Chounard's first few weeks in his house have been challenging for his small network of supporters, too.
The rent is donated by the landlords through March. C-U at Home is trying to raise money to pay the utilities and will need to cover the rent after that, until Chounard is on his feet.
That could take some time, but nobody expects him to settle into new life overnight, says C-U at Home's founder Melany Jackson.
As of Tuesday, Chounard was claiming sobriety for two weeks, but Hancock and Jackson acknowledge he's still drinking off and on.
"Over half the time, I'd say he hadn't had something to drink before I see him," Hancock says. "But there are different degrees on how much he's had to drink. When he went off that time, he'd been drinking a lot."
Chounard says he tends to get up in the morning and go to an AA meeting, then go out and pick up cans to earn a few bucks, then spend time with Hancock. He hopes to get back to work as a cook, now that Hancock has helped him get a state ID card.
Hancock is urging him to do more — to enroll in a high school diploma equivalency program. But Chounard isn't entirely sold on the idea.
Where does he see himself in five years?
"Dead," Chounard says. "The Lord done told me."
Jackson, a full-time homeless advocate who gave up her paying job and sold her possessions to launch C-U at Home, says no matter how long Chounard lives, anything she and others can do for him is worth it.
"Anything we can do for that man today is worth everything. Of course, we hope that's not true," she says of his five-year life projection. "We hope he's able to heal and be healthy."
Other than what effect smoking and drinking are having on his health, Chounard is otherwise in good physical condition, Jackson said.
But she thinks his continued visits to the Daily Bread soup kitchen in downtown Champaign are keeping him in touch with homeless friends who drink and on the track of his old lifestyle. And until he stops drinking, he'll continue to struggle in all areas of his life, she said.
How long it will take for him to get on a new lifestyle track, she and Hancock don't know, Jackson said.
But, she adds, "we're not anywhere close to a stopping point."
For his part, Hancock says, there may come a time when decisions may have to be made if Chounard is unwilling to stop drinking.
He is looking for activities to help fill Chounard's days, and he's talked to Chounard about starting a church-based program for alcoholics he believes can help him.
Hancock says he also made a personal agreement with Chounard beyond his lease agreement — no alcohol at his rental house — "and as far as I know, he's honoring that," he says.
Jackson and Hancock both talk about God working through Chounard, because if this housing experience works for him, it can help C-U at Home help other homeless people make a transition from the street to living in a house.
"We can't think of anybody better," Hancock says of Chounard. "His experience and his heart, that's just obvious."
Jackson said she had intended to have a network of support in place for each homeless person before placing that person in a house.
But the house became available for Chounard first, and the network of volunteers — one she hoped to find in church groups — hasn't been forthcoming.
Right now, she says, she's feeling a bit overwhelmed and in need of much more volunteer help.
She's also feeling the weight of the responsibility she's taken on with Chounard.
"It feels like his life is in my hands. I know God doesn't need my help, but he's put me in this position to help," she says.
With so many other homeless people for whom she hopes to find homes, Jackson says she knows there's a lot riding on this first housing experience with Chounard — and many people are looking for it to fail.
She's determined to prove them wrong: "I'm going to keep going after this cause until literally I believe God tells me to quit."
This story appeared in print on Jan. 15.