Keith’s Story

Violence Leads to Darkness, Then to Determination and Change

keith beltonSo far, over 500 people have been murdered in Chicago this year, with little hope that the toll will stop rising. How can something so difficult, so entrenched, so complex ever be solved?

“Moms. You start with the moms, and the rest of the community will follow.”

Keith Belton, has worked hard to overcome homelessness and addiction. He knows a thing or two about complex problems, and he has faith that we can do something to turn the tide of violence.

Keith’s own Mom raised him on the west side of the city in the 1960s. The oldest of six, Keith had to take on responsibilities that many don’t face until much later in life. The red-lined neighborhoods on the west side provided few opportunities. Shell-shocked veterans were returning home from Vietnam, and heroin was everywhere. While his neighbors were finding escape through drugs, Keith had to find ways to make sure his family was eating.

“I had to do whatever I could to take care of the family. Stealing. Dealing. Whatever I had to do.”

“Medicaid helped pay for services to help me heal. The organization that I worked with, Heartland Alliance, used Medicaid to help me with physical therapy, medicine, doctor visits. Eventually I was able to retain my health, kick my addictions and maintain sobriety, and continue succeed and escape homelessness .”

But that lifestyle provided little for the soul. Addiction caused Keith’s life to spiral into a dark period that included prison. It also cost Keith his health. One day, Keith stumbled into the street and a flat-bed truck ran him over, crushing his pelvis and breaking his back. For years, he fought the pain with drugs and alcohol, even teaching himself to walk again just to get back to the life.

It wasn’t until Heartland Alliance showed up at his shelter that the fog cleared. That simple meeting – a blood pressure reading, a few kind words, and real human interest – showed Keith that he was more than his addiction. He woke up to the idea that he deserved better, but to achieve that would require healing – and not just his bones.

“Change can be scary for a homeless person. I had gotten so used to being on my own. I had to learn how to have relationships again.”

Heartland Alliance connected Keith to doctors, housing, and case management. With a newfound hope, he began to attend a recovery program, found a church, and discovered that real growth came about only after he opened up to people and began to develop relationships – and found that he was really, really good at it.

“The people at Heartland Alliance got me on my feet, and I wanted to help others. All of my years homeless – I turned that energy and knowledge around to help the clinic.”

Keith began connecting people to our north-side medical and dental clinic. Handing out flyers and starting conversations with homeless people all over the city, Keith’s calling soon became apparent to him. The man has a powerful ability to build trust – and has used that ability to help get people access to healthcare and save lives.

“This is about being in the right place. You know I’m going to be there building trust, building those relationships. And they are going to come.”

Eventually, our board of directors took notice – and asked him to join. Keith’s passion for his neighbors and his talent for building connections is now allowing him to influence real policies that affect thousands in the city. That passion has been a great asset as we have considered our role in addressing the pervasive violence facing our city.

“You have got to start with the moms. Homeless people connect with moms. Gang bangers connect with moms. Building a community starts with them, because they are the heart of the community.”

Heartland Alliance is currently developing new clinics on both 75th Street and 63rd Street, which will allow us to provide more blood pressure readings, more kind words, and more real human interest to Chicagoans who find themselves where Keith was. Solving our city’s biggest issues will require a deeper dive into the communities most affected. And we agree that moms—and their children–need to be a key part of our outreach and engagement

 “This is about being in the right place. You know I’m going to be there building trust, building those relationships. And they are going to come.”

» Back to Our Stories