A One-Man Movement To Help Those Experiencing Homelessness

Monday, February 19, 2018 || By Tom Holmes/Forest Park Review || @maywoodnews 

Featured image: John Netherly demonstrates how he re-purposes windbreakers from trash bags outside of the Forest Park Transit Station. | Alexa Rogals 

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 un-sheltered. 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.  VFP 

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2 thoughts on “A One-Man Movement To Help Those Experiencing Homelessness”

  1. 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. Who is involved with this? FT staff of 40 and 4.5 million annual budget, AIMS to Provide, seems a little strange, AIMS, with that budget should be provides housing and job support. I applaud an individual who does all this work for people who cannot help themselves, but he is waging a battle that will never change.

  2. I think a major point is being missed in regard to Mr. Netherly. Here is a man who gives priority to the most important (at least in my mind) thing to do for the homeless: Provide basic needs – clean clothes, showers, food, transit passes, and the opportunity for those people to go the first step towards mental health care. Sure, many homeless people have mental illness; so do a lot of successful, employed people. Mental illness does not have to mean living your life on the street. But for those of us who are not homeless, stop and think about something…how would you feel if you had to relieve yourself in public places, the CTA train for example. What if your bodily functions were going haywire and you soiled yourself because you couldn’t find a place to use a bathroom? What if you had to sleep outside during this last snowstorm? Better yet, when it’s below freezing, put on your coat and lay down in your yard and see how you like it. Maslow was a psychologist who created a “Hierarchy of Needs” that every human being should be able to obtain. The first level is Physiological Needs – that means air, water, food, clothing, sleep, shelter. If these physiological needs are not meet, you will never feel safe, which is the 2nd level of the hierarchy. If you are homeless and don’t have your basic needs met,

    I do agree with Mr. Netherly…there are homeless people who choose to be homeless and some of those don’t have mental illness and may be impossible to help. And you can’t just drag them off the street against their wishes. Housing Forward is one of many good organizations that help a lot of people, homeless or not, with various aspects of their lives. However, Mr. Netherly is ONE MAN who is on his own personal mission to enable the homeless who won’t leave the streets with basic, human needs. And he doesn’t have millions of dollars – he spends about $700 a month!!!! And, I also think that the homeless situation will likely never change, or change only marginally in a positive direction, there are people like Mr. Netherly who are providing these people with a little sense of dignity in an otherwise brutal existence.

    Mr. Netherly is my hero.

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