by Yesica P. Prado
Tires screech before reaching the bridge on the Wilson exit from Lake Shore Drive, as cars try to avoid the body lying in the road. With messy hair, a black torn hoodie and quivering hands, John held up his “I’m homeless” sign while kneeling down in the middle of the road. He begged for money to the passing cars, only to be ignored.
“You are going to get yourself killed,” said his homeless neighbor Nicolas Fernandez, as he pulled John to the sidewalk. “This is no way to live, so what’s the point!” John said angrily as he pushed Fernandez to the ground.
This is the last memory Fernandez recalls of John, his homeless neighbor camping next to him for the last month, before being taken away by Chicago Police for reckless behavior.
“Homeless” signs are a common sight in Uptown all throughout the year. Even during the holiday season, people continue to sleep under viaducts and the streets in terrible weather.
According to the Uptown Chicago Commission, “Uptown has, by far, the largest number of social service organizations in the state of Illinois.” Then why are these people still sleeping on the streets? Social services work in Uptown to put homeless in housing, but these services have failed because they do not collaborate together, stated 46th Ward Alderman James Cappleman.
Last March, Cappleman requested the removal of the Salvation Army mobile outreach unit and gave them one month to cease their services in Uptown. Cappleman believed Salvation Army’s services were not working in Uptown, as they failed to provide significant changes in the number of homeless people put in housing. Captain Nancy Powers, director of Salvation Army’s homeless program in Chicago, persisted in staying in Uptown to feed the homeless. After meeting with Cappleman, they came to a mutual agreement for the Salvation Army to work together with other social services to put an end to homelessness in our ward.
Although this agreement has not been fulfilled, according to Cappleman, Salvation Army continues to distribute soup, bread, juice and hot tea to homeless and low income residents of Uptown from Monday through Friday, 10:30 a.m. to noon, in front of the Weiss Hospital parking lot.
The mobile outreach unit distributes food five days a week on the outskirts of Uptown, providing a meal to anyone in need. Two social workers come on board with the unit hoping to get the homeless off the streets.
“The goal is that they might need detox or drug treatment or mental health or they may just need housing or employment issues,” said Powers. “Any of these things our caseworkers can work with the people to try and get them settled in.”
In 2009, Salvation Army began distributing food in the Uptown neighborhood after Alderman Helen Shiller requested the services of the mobile outreach unit. The truck was placed on the outskirts of Uptown, and they have stayed there ever since.
“You go where the alderman wants you,” said Powers. “The visibility of the food truck is not necessarily positive for the tourist street…so I think the purpose was to keep us not visible.”
According to Powers, the mobile outreach unit feeds approximately 75 people per day, thanks to the 85% of private and 15% city funding that Salvation Army receives for this program. Although soup is the main dish served, Powers claims the food has a good nutritional value.
“You can put everything in a soup, vegetables, protein, carbs, and you have a one-dish casserole,” said Powers. “But (sometimes) they might get macaroni and cheese with a vegetable and a meat in it, they might get chili, they might get a pasta and spaghetti sauce and meatballs.”
Although this food is distributed to help the homeless, others claim this food has only made them sick at times, and so they rely on getting their daily meals from passing pedestrians.
“I don’t like to eat it (the Salvation Army soup) because it makes me sick at times,” said Fernandez. “I used to be a cook for 10 years, and I can tell you that soup is not fresh, so I only eat it when there is nothing else to eat.”
“I hardly ever eat from that truck,” said Mathew Creasy, Fernandez’s friend who has been homeless for months and is currently living under the Wilson viaduct. “They only give you soup. I usually get food from stamps, or we have people drop off food. Couple of people stop by and give us hot chocolate from McDonald’s, two double cheeseburgers and fries. We do have people that care for us.”
Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness conducted a survey in 2007 that found “5,170 people either staying in shelters or living on the street in the City of Chicago.” The city’s count is based on “the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s definition of homelessness: ‘when an individual lacks a fixed, regular and adequate place to sleep or who regularly spends the night in a shelter, similar institution or a place not meant for human habitation.’”
Having more than 18% of the Chicago population in a state of homelessness on the North Side, social services concentrate on these neighborhoods to attend to the majority of this population. Most of these services reside in Uptown, which is a concern to residents, as these organizations attract the homeless population.
“There are 77 Chicago neighborhoods, and Uptown is one of them,” said Cappleman. “If you take 39 of those community areas, and you add up all the government subsidized housing in all 39 community areas, the sum total is still less than what you find in Uptown. What does that say to you?”
With so many people at stake, one cannot expect one neighborhood to end homelessness, but does a solution to end homelessness really exist?
“Homelessness was huge in the ’80s,” said Powers. “There was a substantial amount of money to address homeless, but social causes change. Homelessness is something that we live with and have to work on it, but it is not the number one focus of government foundations.”
Although homelessness is not the number one priority, the needs persist, said Powers: “…there’s just a whole variety of things that folks need, from hats, gloves, scarfs…socks.” And so, the Salvation Army will continue their services in Uptown past the holidays and throughout the cold season.