Chicago native Jacqueline Kennedy-Harris (pictured center) walked out of prison in 1992 and vowed it would be her last stint behind bars. She was homeless and a former crack addict, but was determined to leave the demons that dragged her into that lifestyle behind.
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From then on, she began thinking of ways to help others in her condition. In 2001, those thoughts became a reality when she used her savings to open the first of three shelters in Chicago for 125 men, women and children.
Kennedy now oversees a staff of 12 paid employees and balances a $700,000 budget, an effort she hopes rubs off on others.
“People need to see an example,” she told the Chicago Tribune. ”Other people need someone: that mother they didn’t have, that father they didn’t have, that friend.”
To many, Kennedy fits that paternal role well.
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“A few years ago, I was living in abandoned buildings,” said Kerry Walton, who lives at one of Kennedy’s shelters. “No matter how many times I went out in the street, she was always there to say, ‘Come on back.’ She never turned me away.”
“I never had a mother,” said Loretta Reeves. “I never had no one to teach me. When I met her and God put her in my life, she became that mother for me.”
For Janice Crockett, Kennedy went above and beyond the call of duty while taking her in.
“She paid some bills for me,” Crockett revealed. “I didn’t have a coat, and she bought one for me. I can think of countless things she did for me. Most important, she’s always there to talk. We can call her any hour of the day. She always picks up the phone.”
After her prison release in 1992, Kennedy walked around Cook County until she found herself at an ex-boyfriend’s doorstep and ended up spending the night. The morning after, she located a church and moved in with a congregation member. Eventually, this lead to her volunteering as a mentor at a homeless shelter. Women at the shelter were empowered by her tale.
“She was doing everything herself. She was providing the housing, doing the counseling, coming up with ideas for funding,” says Cenadra Daniels, who was working for Inner-Voice, a homeless-service organization, at the time.
Daniels suggested Kennedy apply for city funding for her own shelter. With Inner Voice’s help, she opened the first one and added two more over the following decade. As an administrator, she’s often busy analyzing quarterly reports and fundraisers. It is a remarkable turnaround for a woman who was in and out of jail so often she can’t remember the exact number.
But to her, it’s simply the work of a higher power:
“I just try to live my life to help other people,” Kennedy says, “because if I wasn’t busy doing the Lord’s work and running my shelters, I’d probably be out there on the streets.”