The sentiment is simple; making it reality often is not.
"If you give people a decent place to live, a good plate of food, treat them decently," Sheila Braxton says, "you won't find any bad people."
Braxton is the executive CEO of A Little Bit of Heaven (alboh.org), a city-funded homeless shelter for men on South Wentworth Avenue.
Check that. It's not a "shelter." It's transitional housing, Braxton says. "The word 'shelter' sort of insults people's integrity."
The concern for her clients' dignity goes to the heart of what Braxton does and is.
A Little Bit of Heaven was founded by her late mother, Lardell, 14 years ago; Braxton says more than 30,000 men have passed through its doors since. It's the lone men-only facility of its kind on the South Side, she says. Often the clients are without families and with prison records, substance abuse issues or mental health problems.
"I help a lot of people no one else wants," Braxton says. "And I hear so many sad stories."
Her clients -- some who have served time for a variety of offenses, from substance abuse to murder -- get dinner and breakfast, and a clean room to sleep in, in the three-story building that began life in 1955 as a nursing home for Roseland Hospital. They get structure, guidance and more from Braxton, a proud South Sider and product of Bowen High School and Kennedy-King College, where she earned an associate degree in child development.
Following is an edited transcript of a conversation with her.
Q: You and your mother founded A Little Bit of Heaven. How did it all start?
A: My mom was a private duty nurse who got tired of that work. She asked God to help her start her own business, and in 1971 she opened her first residential house with two or three patients. She'd have patients from Manteno, Tinley Park (and) mental health patients from other hospitals. She raised me with the Christian belief to help others. I think she did a good job because we still have those values.
Q: What was she like?
A: Mother was a very strong woman. Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks. Defiant. Intelligent. Very strong-minded. And she had a whole bucket of faith.
Q: And this was the family business, a family operation?
A: I have a brother and two sisters, and we all pitched in. My Uncle Matthew, my mother's brother, also helped as the house manager. When he expired, that did something to her. She slowed down.
Q: She acquired this building in 1999 to start A Little Bit of Heaven. Was it a big transition for her to go from the mental health world to one with homeless men, some of whom were ex-criminals?
A: She was a little afraid. The guys looked rough. She was used to that mental health look. I came in and started working with the guys: haircuts, hygiene, clothes. She would go home at night, so she didn't see that. A couple of months later, mom was here. The guys saw her — "Hey, Mama Braxton!" She walked into the back room where they were and grabbed the wall to steady herself. "What did you do to them?" she asked. I said, "Nothing. I showed them love and kindness."
Q: How many men a night? And what's the age range?
A: On a good day, now that it's getting cold, between 65 and 80 guys. I don't turn people away. I'm contracted to the city to do only 50. But I don't turn people away. And their ages are from 21 to seniors, maybe 70.
Q: Describe your clients.
A: You find so much hopelessness in men. Their spirits are broken, their dreams shattered, and love has been lost. A lot of our guests here have nothing. … (Homeless) women and children get everything. Men are forgotten. (Society says) men are leaders, men are providers, the head of the family, men are our friends. You see a man who drinks, who has lost his way, and "He can't stay in my house anymore." Or "He's on drugs. He stole my TV. He has to go." These are the people we help. … They've paid for the mistakes they've made. They want to make it back, but society offers them absolutely nothing.
Q: Because of their past lives, are there problems with discipline?
A: We don't have trouble. We don't have the police running in and out. The parole officers come in, but that's their job. We don't have trouble here.
Q: Do you have classes for your clients?
A: Men are sent to programs and get certified in janitorial services. … All the men assist here in janitorial, carpentry services, painting and cleaning. Then they can go out and look for day labor jobs. We have a Bible study class. And in it we learned that some of the men can't read. So we have started a daytime literacy program to help them.
Q: Where does your funding come from?
A: It's difficult at times. We have a contract with the city, but that money is eaten up quickly with utilities, insurance. You've got to pay for your Internet. … It's been by the grace of God that we've been able to make it this far. I've had red stickers on doors to cut off the gas or electric, I've got an old boiler than needs to be replaced, but something always happens. The Lord provides.
Q: What do you do for fun?
A: Dance. Roller skate. I sing with the Black On Black Love choir. I like movies. And I like to read my Bible for strength and understanding.
Q: What are your musical tastes?
A: I like '70s and '80s music. I'm kind of old school. … I'm a classic stepper, not a pole dancer. The kind of dancing I do is in the early afternoon, early evening. I don't drink, so I just go to dance … to the Temptations, Diana Ross, Peabo Bryson, and I find pleasure in that. It's good exercise. I come home and I'm tickled to death.
Q: Do you have a favorite place to dance in Chicago?
A: (Willa's) 50 Yard Line on 75th Street. It's a sports bar.
Q: Doing what you do for these men, it just seems so difficult.
A: It's not hard. It's not hard to say, "You feel OK? You need another shirt?" If I see you don't have socks or need a clean shirt, I'll give you what you need. Isn't that easy?
When Sheila Braxton needs to be inspired, she thinks of her mother. "I can hear her voice," she says. "And a thing she used to say: 'Always try to be a blessing instead of looking for one.'"