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Advocate for city's homeless population expands her mission

Julie Benson
This is the interior of one of the sober living houses operated by Julie Benson.

Julie Benson of Springfield has been helping the homeless in her community for more than eight years. In late 2022, she decided to open first one and then another sober living home as a way of getting people off the streets. This is an edited, excerpted version of that conversation.

Tell me about your sober living homes.

I have two of them. They're not far from each other. They're fairly close to downtown. I was speaking to a gentleman who owned the first one. And he's in his 90s. And his family was encouraging him to retire. I kept in contact with him, occasionally, and I was trying to get somebody into his house. And he said, ‘Oh, by the way, I'm going to sell it.’ He said, ‘I'm really hoping to get somebody who will keep it as a sober house.’. And I got off the phone with him and God's whispering in my ear again. And I prayed about it and slept overnight. And I woke up the next morning, and I said, ‘Why not me/’And I called him and said, ‘I'd like to buy the house.’

So, I bought the first house. And I almost filled it up the day I signed the bank note. Because people in the community knew who I was, I was getting phone calls, ‘I heard you've got a sober house, I need to get off the street.’ So, I almost filled it up. And then I had so many men that kept calling me that I was putting on a waiting list. And I thought, ‘Why not. I don't have enough to do, why not a second home?’ Again, the day that I signed the paperwork, 30 days later, I had it filled up. Everybody gets their own room. They have a lock on their door. I'm the only other person that has a key. They have privacy. They all have TVs, they all have beds. I provide Wi Fi and free laundry service in the building.

I'm definitely a hands-on person. I'm not just collecting rent and being a slumlord. The houses are clean. They're all happy to be in there. Some of them came off the street. Some of them came from prison. Some of them came from other sober houses. Some of the other ones, they have to share rooms and and in mine they don't.

And, I've learned over time about drug addiction. I had somebody actually ask me recently, ’What was your drug of choice?’ And I said, ‘I never had a drug problem. And I never had a drinking problem’. I just evolved from helping the street people which I still do. For me, this was a way to help people get into housing and get help and the transformation for people is I mean, it's unbelievable. And I have seen these 19 people do wonderful things with their life. And I'm happy to be a part of it..

Are they the same people as you Initially when you started?

No, I have had to evict some people. I'm also a social security disability rep payee for 20 people and some of the people that I had in my first building were some people that I was a rep payee for and it didn't work out. They still had drug problems and other problems.

One of the rules in my lease is that you can't have anybody stay all night, you're not supposed to have women stay all night. It's not an apartment building. They each have their own room. So I have in my lease, also the lease renews every 30 days.

I have a guy who's been there nine years, And then another guy who's been there 13 years now. They consider it their home. And I have no intention of trying to make them move for any reason. Some of these people are on disability. So there is their unlimited income. Some of them, probably half of them are on disability, and half of them are working. And they're all walking their own journey.

 And so you don't have a time limit on how long someone stays, it's just whether there's a problem?

Whether there's a problem, or they want to move on.I have told all of them. If this isn't for you, and you get a better job, or you know, they're on disability, and somebody leaves you an inheritance or something, and you want to move into your own place, no hard feelings at all. But I have rules, no drugs, no alcohol, and no excuses.

I am talking to all of them. They can call me; they can text me. And we have group texts at each house. So let's say, for instance, I'm going to have somebody come in and fix some things, I let them know on the group text that somebody's coming in. Sometimes I have to have somebody meet them at the door to let them in. Because both of the houses are secure. You can't just walk in the front door, you've either got to have a key or you've got to know the combination lock.

I'm very big on communication with both houses. And I'm happy if that's where they want to stay. Because that's what they can afford. And, and they're okay with that. I've had some of them move on. I'm a stricter landlord, than I am stricter with people on the street. You know, I've got to put my landlord hat on, you have to pay rent, or I can't keep the places going. And you're benefiting from the house is, you know, being self sufficient.

I don't get any government money for either. So I've got Helping the Homeless in Springfield, Illinois, that is a charity. And that is the outreach for the people on the street. And that is where I do my Social Security Disability rep payee work and then Home Sweet Home sober living is a business because I collect rent.

Do you see that there's overlap between the people who are homeless and those who need sober living. Do they tend to be the same people?

Oh, sure. Absolutely. Drug addiction, and for whatever kind of maybe other trouble that they were in and had to go to prison. You put people back on the street again, they're just going to get in trouble. One way or another with drug addiction with alcohol addiction. You know, stealing things. You know, I mean, there's all kinds of other kinds of criminal elements I have seen.

People are healthier, when they're in a place. Many of them have – we joke about it – many (of them say,) ‘Since I've been in this house, I've gained weight.’ ‘Well, you probably needed to eat. You're eating better, you're sleeping better, you're safe.’

There's camaraderie among the people in the houses. I'm also trying to get the two houses to come together. So that they can be a support system for each other. Some of them know each other.

And,when you've got a community of people who are coming out of prison, coming out of rehab, drug rehabilitation, being on the street, they know each other. And they try to help each other. When they start on that path of living a sober life, they go to church, they go to AAA meetings, they go to NA meetings. They're trying to get involved, trying to help the other people, trying to talk to some of the other ones that are on the street. You know, ‘When are you going to bottom out and care about yourself?’ And that's really, what it boils down to is they have to care about themselves. First, it's hard to help somebody who doesn't want to help themself

I had a guy who's been in my first house for a year. And I had one room left. He was sleeping at the library on concrete for several years, and was doing that whole tough guy thing. And I convinced him to come in, get into the room. He's had a couple of setbacks here recently. And I have a pretty high threshold for not kicking somebody out the first time, I don't believe that that's a solution for anybody. So I've had discussions with him. And I said, 'You know, you're pretty close to getting evicted. Because you've gone off the wagon several times, you've gone to rehab several times, you know, I can't help you unless you help yourself.', “Oh, I don't know, if f I can do this thing outside, you know that,’

Now a year later, he's saying, 'please don't, please don't evict me. I sleep better, I get to watch streaming TV, I get to do my laundry.' I mean, it's a transformation.

It’s a mental thing. And, it's a physical thing, to get them off the street or, or you know, some of them when they come out of prison, they have to have an address. So they have to, they cannot be homeless, they have to have an address, because the idea from coming out of the court system is that we don't want you to come back to prison. So first thing is gotta get into housing. And I get calls from guys all the time needing to get in.

And, you know, I attribute the success of the two of the houses to two things that I have found. People that want to help themselves and therefore this is their home, and, and that they don't want to go back to what they were doing before. I mean, some of them have some pretty heavy backgrounds. And I don't discriminate against anybody. I don't.

My only thing when somebody approaches me or calls me and wants to get into the house, and I've got a spot open. ‘Do you want to live a sober living life? And can you pay rent?’ And I don't care what your background is, and eventually they tell me because I'm not judgmental. I'm open to helping people. The backgrounds are, they're sad, you know, some of them have some real severe trauma in their lives that they've dealt with. And not that they're not still dealing with it. But you can't deal with it successfully when you're living on the street. It's impossible.

What is the reason for men rather than women or have one of each?

I had more men call me. I had very few women call me. After I opened the first one and filled it. I only had men call me. I had one or two women. And not that there isn't a need. But there is a far greater need for

  Do you charge the same rent for all your sober living rooms?

All the rooms are different. So there's some small rooms, and there's some bigger rooms, some of the smaller rooms are $300. Some are $400, and some are $450. And everything that I told you before, is inclusive in that I pay the utilities out of that. And any maintenance on the building all comes out of that.The money stays in the business to keep the upkeep of the buildings. They're good solid buildings. But things happen. So there were things that I had to do to the second building. I don't take any monetary donations for the sober living house because I would have to pay taxes on that money because it's a business. But what people have done, they've donated furniture that goes in the guys' rooms. There are things that people can do to help the people in the houses directly,that don't have any benefit to my company at all, and that's what it's about. It's to help them.

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is news editor and equity and justice beat reporter for NPR Illinois, where she has been on the staff since 2014 after Illinois Issues magazine’s merger with the station. She joined the magazine’s staff in 1998 as projects editor and became managing editor in 2003. Prior to coming to the University of Illinois Springfield, she was an education reporter and copy editor at three local newspapers, including the suburban Chicago Daily Herald, She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in English from UIS.
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