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StreetWise staff describe their experiences on homeless count

Fri, Feb 21, 2014

Suzanne Hanney StreetWiseEarlier this year in StreetWise, Dutch photographer Jan Banning marveled that American homeless people take complete responsibility for their situation; they try to solve their situation themselves “in a social vacuum, as if there were no society around them, no politics, nothing.”

When I participated in this year’s Point in Time (PIT) count of people living on the street January 22, I encountered the same kind of person. I admired Brian for taking responsibility for his drug dealing and gang banging that led to serving time in prison. But I questioned whether it was reasonable to think that he could make a comeback without some kind of job training or housing that allowed for his background.

Since the PIT informs public money spent on homelessness, I was glad to be able to give readers Brian’s voice and that of Bo, who is self-employed as a handyman around his neighborhood. Bo is my answer to the friend who said homeless people should be forced into shelter in subzero weather. Without freedom, I would tell her, Bo would be unable to exercise the pride and creativity that has served him thus far.
Still, a caring community reaches out to prevent people from hurting themselves, especially if mental illness keeps some people from making a fully informed decision about staying outside. I was proud to show readers volunteers who were not only giving the survey but advice on how to seek a police station or hospital as a warm up spot. And I am also glad to show City efforts to find people housing.

By Suzanne Hanney
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

Thomas Fowkes StreetWiseThomas Fowkes is a StreetWise intern, a senior at DePaul University majoring in journalism and minoring in theatre studies. Originally from Boston, Fowkes said he learned more about poverty from the covering the Point in Time homeless count in Chicago. He enjoyed meeting some of the 200 volunteers conducting the count, people who wanted to altruistically serve this population. Some already work in the field others were new to it.

Fowkes interviewed an undocumented immigrant who was staying under a viaduct in the northwest side area he canvassed along with volunteers from two other social service agencies.

“Our inability to assist this man more effectively was certainly the most difficult aspect of the evening for myself and the other participants that I worked with. As one of the other people who volunteered along with me said, ‘It feels uncomfortable for me as someone who works with people every day to try to connect them to resources not to be able to do more in the moment.’

Mark Bradley, director of outreach and health ministry at The Night Ministry, shared a similar viewpoint with Fowkes after the count. “What always gets me is people under viaducts, who are sleeping there, like one time…there was like a couple together, and they had a dog, and they built this encampment there, and it was like their house. It was just, I thought, really sad. The thing about it though, they were so nice. These people, I mean you know, we were walking into their home, and they were very welcoming.”

Maryana Sokha Prosto NebaMaryana Sokha is the founder and editor-in-chief of Prosto Neba street paper in Lviv, Ukraine who now lives in Chicago. She received her undergraduate and graduate degrees at National University Lviv Polytechnic where she researched homelessness as a social and cultural phenomenon. She has been a professor of social work at Open International University of Human Development Ukraine and vice director at the Oselya NGO community of mutual aid, where she was in charge of administration and social counseling as well as external communication.

“I come from a country where homeless people are the last in the list of social service beneficiaries. The first night shelter in my city of Lviv in western Ukraine was opened no sooner than 2009. It is still the only one: a capacity of 40 beds in a city of one million inhabitants. I can’t tell you how many homeless people we have because nobody knows that. In Ukraine we never tried to count homeless people. Most people believe that it’s impossible.

That’s why I was very interested to participate in the Point in Time (PIT) homeless count that took place on January 22 in Chicago. As a social worker, I know that homelessness is a phenomenon that exists in every country; shelters do not solve the housing problem, they merely get people off the street.

“On that really cold night, I hoped that we wouldn’t meet homeless people in the streets. I hoped if they had a choice between shelter and streets they would chose shelter. But we did meet them. We didn’t ask them why they don’t go to the shelter. I know they don’t like this question. They may say it’s all about freedom. But do they really lose freedom in shelters? I really don’t know much about homelessness in USA but I know that in Ukraine people don’t want to be recognized as homeless, they always speak about their situation as temporary and prefer to receive help from those who don’t ask many questions.

“Staying in the shelter will make them recognize in front of others and themselves that they are in need, and that something went wrong in their lives. So, the question we should ask ourselves is not why people don’t go to the shelter, but how to make people feel freedom and dignity in the place that is offered by the social system.”


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