By Tom Holmes
They found Miss Bernice dead in a doorway. Forest Park resident John Netherly said he knew that would happen. He had been pleading with police for months to take Miss Bernice to a hospital or mental health facility, telling officers the woman was not mentally capable of making decisions in her best interest.
"There's nothing we can do," Netherly heard in return. The homeless woman then passed alone of a drug overdose on Jan. 24, after refusing Netherly's offer to connect her with a social service, temporary housing, mental health or other agency.
Netherly is the founder of the Bedrock Movement, a nonprofit that serves those like Miss Bernice who choose to sleep on the street instead of in a shelter. A 2016 survey by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that, of the 952 people researchers counted as being homeless in the Chicago suburbs in 2016, 110 were unsheltered. In the city, 1,243 of the 5,889 were sleeping outside. The Northern Illinois Chapter of the American Red Cross has recently recognized Netherly's work with the homeless, and nominated him to receive a community service award at its annual Heroes Breakfast in May.
Netherly has spent his life serving the homeless and mentally ill. His father, who balled as a Harlem Globetrotter before working at the post office for 40 years, and mother would often cook meals and hand them out in front of shelters.
Netherly went on to study ways to give back, earning a master's degree in social work from Dominican University, a master's in urban ministry from Moody Theological Seminary and a master's in business management at National Louis University.
At seminary school, Netherly learned that homeless ministry is underserved. And, that those who serve this population, are often overworked. He decided he would focus his energy on the disadvantaged and has worked with the mentally ill for 15 years, and is presently employed by Presence Behavioral Health as a behavioral health technician.
Since Netherly is unmarried and works the night shift at Presence, he spends six days a week travelling to the West and South Sides of Chicago and tending to the needs of the homeless. This experience gave credence to his suspicion that most, if not all, of the people who choose to live on the street do so because they are mentally ill.
He said he has established trust with many of the people he meets on the streets because the most important thing he does is to listen to their stories.
"When I see a person on a bench or in a park who I suspect from my years of experience is homeless, I go up to them and say, 'Hello, my name is John, and I'm a social worker. Please tell me your story," he said.
Netherly listens and then asks them what they need. It might be a cup of coffee or a bus pass. He has given out tents and sleeping bags. Sometimes he'll rent a room at a cheap motel and make appointments for homeless to shower while he cleans their clothes at a nearby laundromat. He swears by the Australia-based Backpack Bed for the Homeless, a company that makes sleeping bags that keep people warm in zero degree weather.
Netherly kept it hidden from his family and friends for about 10 years that he served the homeless. I "didn't feel it was a big deal or that no one really cared," he wrote on his website. It took his friend Pastor Rickey Kendrick to tell him how important his work really was. In 2014, Netherly founded the Bedrock Movement, which "exists to help the homeless [and] mentally ill, receive dignity, safety, and empowerment for a high-quality of life on a daily basis," according to its mission statement.
Unlike Housing Forward, a Maywood nonprofit that aims to provide vulnerable with housing and job support and has a full-time staff of 40 and $4.5 million annual budget, Netherly is the director of Bedrock and its only worker all rolled into one. His expenditures average around $700 a month and come out of his own wallet. Those who want to donate comforters, tents, bed bug spray and more can reach out to the Bedrock Movement on Facebook.
Budget and personnel constraints have forced Netherly's help to be simple and cost effective. For example, a challenge for people on the street is staying dry as well as warm. His solution is to buy heavy duty garbage bags, cut holes in them for heads and arms and give them to the people he serves to wear like ponchos.
Netherly said his work has pulled him emotionally and spiritually in two different directions. On the one hand, he wants to respect the homeless and care for them where they are, but he also knows that people like Miss Bernice are not capable of making decisions in their own best interest.
After her passing, Netherly approached state Rep. LaShawn Ford to ask him to introduce "They Refuse Help," a bill which would not only authorize, but compel police officers to take people on the street who are clearly not able to make decisions on their own behalf to a hospital or mental facility. Netherly also advocates for Chicago to follow the lead of Arizona, and install a tent city, or area that is legally designated for the homeless and mentally ill to sleep. He believes the city should offer homeless counseling, a 24-hour bathroom, area to wash clothes, medical services and food and water.