Posted by StreetWise in Magazine ArticlesTwo other women and I were instructed to check streets from Navy Pier to State Street and Chicago Avenue in -13F weather. We were also supposed to look at the Emergency Room of Northwestern Memorial Hospital. We didn’t have to look for people under bridges, in the subway and other places. So we were driving the car and stopped when we saw somebody who looked homeless. It wasn’t difficult to identify them as at that time there were few people in the streets and they were rushing somewhere warm. We approached those who were walking slowly, standing or sitting on the sidewalks or stairs. These few minutes outside were terrible, the frosty wind made its way to your bones. And some people were sitting still covered with blankets.
We did interview them to find out some specific information about their access to social services, the period and reason of homelessness, their age, whether they had children etc. It wasn’t really a good time and place to have a deeper conversation that would help interview to understand every specific reason for every specific person staying in the streets. We met 19 homeless persons and interviewed most of them, gave them gloves, hats and information sheets with the addresses of places where they can be helped.
Two or three people didn’t want to talk so we just put them in the tallies. Some people who looked like they were homeless said they were not. One man begging in front of a supermarket said, “I am not homeless, I am just penniless.” Another older man was in a blanket ready to sleep on the steps of a church. He didn’t speak English but the volunteer from Thresholds knew him and thought he was Korean. We had no one available to immediately speak to him. Another man was ready to sleep with blankets but he had already been interviewed by other PIT volunteers because he had changed locations from earlier in the evening.
What impressed me personally was that we met only one drunken man. All other people were sober.
I asked people why they wouldn’t go to a shelter. Some said they were a few months out of prison. One guy said he likes to feel free.
I asked Adriana Camarda, chief planning analyst in the homeless division of the Chicago Dept. of Family and Support Services (DFSS) about whether there is a need to open more shelters. She said we can always find a bed for someone in the shelters but what people really want is housing. Still, shelters are needed because there are always new people becoming homeless and the system needs a way to find them and a place to work with them.
I also asked her what people don’t like about shelters. The lack of freedom? She said yes, the set times to come and go out. They also have to leave their stuff locked up; they can’t have it with them. And they can’t have the same bed every night. Chicago and cities across the U.S. do the count in January because if it in were summer they would find many more people on the streets; it would be hard to distinguish homeless people from others.
We met seven persons at the Emergency Room. At least they stayed in the warm place and were open for the conversation. Most of them were confident that it is a temporary situation and they are working on solving their problems. Few of them do receive some kind of help like food stamps and were interested to get the list of social services and said that they would apply there. But it didn’t seem very realistic they would.