The American dream has been the driving force for citizens for decades. In 1931 James Truslow Adams defined it best in The Epic of America: it’s the dream of a land in which life should be better for everyone, regardless of their societal status or circumstances presented at birth. Spanish Coalition for Housing (SCH) client, Sal Johnson, has led his life with that dream in mind, but the journey has not been without its challenges; however, threats of defeat have not dissuaded Mr. Johnson from moving forward.
His battle began early in life as he was born premature with oxygen toxicity (high amounts of oxygen to the brain). This caused damage to his retinas, leaving him permanently blind. He had to attend special schools that would cater to his needs; according to his parents, that was always the biggest challenge.
As Mr. Johnson got older, his aspirations also grew. He worked in food service for years to pay for school, his family and their home, which he purchased with his wife in 1989. After starting a family, Mr. Johnson pursued his dream of attending university to obtain his degree in human development. With only a few months until he was to receive his degree, he decided to leave his line of work in food services and dedicate himself full time to his education. It was his hope that through that dedication and his raw passion for helping others that he would have the opportunity to work in the rehabilitation sector as a case worker. He had a family, a home, he was about to have a degree and the natural result would be to have his dream job.
In 2004, Mr. Johnson did receive his degree, but his vision of what was to follow was shattered. He thought “once you get a degree, it’s the idea of the American story – getting a job . . . But that didn’t happen.”
Instead, Mr. Johnson faced discrimination due to his visual impairment. He said in the professional world, it was a disability that no one wanted to take on. Eventually, Social Security payments became his only means of support, and over the next couple of years his family began to suffer. Their mortgage payment was easily two thirds the amount of what they were getting from Social Security and by the time he paid their other bills there was no money left over. Mr. Johnson said he couldn’t remember the last time he bought new clothes or went out for a fun night with his family. He said, “Unless it was the dollar menu at McDonalds, we didn’t go out . . . and even that was a rarity.”
Mr. Johnson’s family depended on Social Security funds for survival, so when they ran out each month, he began to feel helpless. His family had already lost so much and losing their home quickly became the biggest danger and fear. Years of unemployment created mountains of debt that became overwhelming and seemingly impossible to overcome. It was not until one unexpected Sunday at church that he felt hope that he could hope again.
People within his church family were passing out flyers for a HUD certified housing counseling agency called Spanish Coalition for Housing. He saw no other option than to take a leap of faith and see if anything could be done to ease his families’ financial hardship; so in 2012 he sought SCH’s help.
He said it was a blessing because before he knew it, he was going through the Illinois Hardest Hit Program (which recently ended). The Hardest Hit Program was put into place in 2010 to assist homeowners who were severely affected by the economic crisis by reducing their mortgage to avoid foreclosure. Through this program SCH was able to help cut Mr. Johnson’s mortgage in half. He believed that was the first stepping stone in lifting the financial burden of student loans, credit card debt and more.
He believes that SCH didn’t see a disability – they only saw possibilities for him and his family, and over time, so did he.
“There’s no reason for people to lose their property when the organization is there to assist,” he reflected. “If our house was saved, others peoples can be. That’s for sure.”
After his own success, Mr. Johnson’s heart was reignited with hope and has advised others to take advantage of SCH’s free services so that they may save their own homes and continue to build towards their dreams.
“It’s been a great journey for us,” he said. “Life can be debilitating but there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.”