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On the NW side, inspired by acts of kindness

Fri, Feb 21, 2014

Thomas Fowkes StreetWise

Photo: Suzanne Hanney

I found myself venturing out to Ravenswood, an unfamiliar neighborhood to me, to take part in Chicago’s Point-In-Time Homeless Count for the first time. I joined a gathering at the administrative office of The Night Ministry, 4711 N. Ravenswood Ave.

Mark Bradley, director of outreach and health ministry at The Night Ministry, briefed us. “Every year it gets much more organized…[and] the idea of counting everybody, I think, is really important.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires an annual count of people in shelters and a biennial count of people on the street in order for cities and other locales to receive funding for homeless services.

Bradley showed us the nuts and bolts of conducting the count: how to properly fill out our paperwork, how to approach subjects. We were to stay with our team at all times, not rouse anyone from sleep and to hand out winter clothing and resource cards listing local shelters and outreach programs to every participant that we could. Besides the questionnaires, we had a separate tally sheet for people who were sleeping or refused the survey; on it we listed gender, age, race and most important, their location for follow up.

NW Side

A viaduct on the northwest side that is “home” to people without shelter (Thomas Fowkes photo).

Bradley has been doing the count since its inception in 2005 and also helped formulate the census questions. “A lot of the questions when I first started doing it were very intrusive and it isn’t our style to be asking such intrusive questions and stuff like that. There was all this debate about the questions we needed. But this is, I think, the same [survey] we’ve for three or four times, so I think people are pretty OK with it now.”

With two other volunteers, both of them employees of social service agencies, I piled into a small car so frosted over we couldn’t see out of the windows.

The area of the Northwest Side that we were to cover encompassed Rockwell on the east, Cicero on the west, Addison on the north and Diversey on the south. At first, we saw very few people on the street, let alone people who might be homeless, i.e., bundled up and carrying many bags. Looking in parking lots and various 24-hour businesses, we eventually came across a man who was sleeping in a Dunkin’ Donuts location, and made our first tally of the night.

We finally found our way to a viaduct that one of my fellow volunteers knew was a place for homeless people to congregate and sleep. On both sides, the area was littered with trash, personal belongings and makeshift beds, some of which had simply been left behind. At one end of the viaduct, we encountered a cluster of people, several of them covered entirely in bed sheets. Our footsteps unintentionally awoke a sleeping man who emerged from his cocoon of linens and greeted us warmly, to my pleasant surprise.

Homeless Count

Photo: Suzanne Hanney

He agreed to be our first survey participant. We learned that he had arrived in Chicago from Mexico only about a month before, and his lack of professional prospects and personal contacts had left him with nowhere to go. After spending some time sleeping on CTA trains, he said that another homeless individual had recommended that he find a place to sleep under a viaduct. But he questioned the soundness of this advice as visible clouds of his breath left his lips with every syllable he spoke. Unaccustomed to the often brutal Chicago winter, he asked us if the weather was “always this cold.”

As this man spoke about his unfortunate situation, I could not decide if the tears in his eyes resulted from the frigid weather or his emotions. He graciously completed the survey and thanked us profusely for giving him additional winter clothing and a list of resources. However, due to his status as an undocumented immigrant, he was wary of visiting a shelter or contacting the Chicago Police Department for assistance. He opted instead to stay under the viaduct where he was.

Unfortunately, not everyone we encountered was quite as accommodating. Another homeless male at sat on the edge of the viaduct, tapping two bits of wood against the stone slab where he was seated as if he were playing the drums, seemingly unaware of our presence. Since he was awake, I approached him and asked if he would be interested in participating in the survey.

He instantly rose and approached me, entering my personal space, speaking unintelligibly and even trying to take the clipboard and pen from my hands. At that point, I recognized that whatever the cause of his disposition, he was not lucid enough to be effectively surveyed. I left him with the same supplies that we had given others. The only thing he said that I was able to understand was, “how much for the girl?” as he nodded in the direction of a female volunteer.

As we bid goodbye to the other man whom we had surveyed, two young women exited a car and approached us with a blanket to give someone sleeping outside. Although we drove through the night and covered the same ground again and again to no further avail, it was acts of empathy and compassion like this that truly made the event memorable.

Thomas Fowkes
StreetWise Editorial Intern

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