Homeless on State Street
Loop North News

Chicago’s Homeless

(Above) A homeless Chicagoan outside a fast food restaurant on State Street talks with two members of a Chicago Loop Alliance “Street Team.” Photos by Steven Dahlman except where noted. Click on images to view larger versions.

It is a problem that will never go away. Homeless Chicagoans, drawn to State Street and, specifically, the money that shoppers give them. Chicago Loop Alliance is in its third year of managing the problem but there are challenges. Besides being homeless, many on State Street are battling addiction and mental illness. For some, homelessness is a lifestyle choice and panhandling helps them make ends meet. For most, however, it is a seemingly endless cycle between hope and despair.

25-Jun-16 – During their three-and-a-half mile journey up and down State Street, 44-year-old Edmund Garcia and 27-year-old Terrence Shelton pass thousands of people – workers at the retail stores for which State Street is famous, shoppers, and tourists. But it is a handful of Chicagoans in which they are most interested, people whose only home is a doorway or a chair outside a restaurant or any spare spot on the sidewalk.

They know these people by name. They can tell you their history – what they are like, why they are here, and what has been done to help them so far. They know the chronically homeless, for whom there is almost no hope. They know the panhandlers who are not as homeless as you might think. They know the scammers, like the men dressed as monks who, as far as they can tell, are not affiliated with any ministry.

“The worse ones are the professional panhandlers, the ones who are out here just to make money,” says Garcia, who has 15 years of social work experience. “When they get close to their deadline, like they have a bill to pay, they start getting a little more aggressive. That’s when we step in to make sure they understand what they can and can’t do.”

Photo by Steven Dahlman (Left) Garcia (center) and Shelton (right) help a woman on State Street with directions. Last year, CLA assisted pedestrians more than 30,000 times.

On a day on which the high temperature will reach 93 degrees, Garcia and Shelton will put in an eight-hour shift walking from the middle of the Loop south to Congress Parkway, then north to the Riverwalk, then south again. Armed with a device to tally interactions and electronic case management files on people with whom they interact, they will check on businesses, walk through the Pedway, help tourists with directions, and keep trying to move the homeless to better places.

It’s happened 51 times since October 2013 – a homeless person got off the street – but it took more than 600 tries.

“You almost have to talk to people seven times before they decide they actually want to go,” says Michael Edwards (right), president of Chicago Loop Alliance, “and eventually you’ll figure out 15 percent of them, this is their chosen lifestyle. This is what they do. They’re not going to move.” Michael Edwards

According to Edwards, there are some people who have been homeless and living on State Street for 28 years.

“If you have to be poor, it’s better to be poor in a big city where you can put your hand out and you’re probably going to get some money, as opposed to being poor in the middle of Indiana. So the folks on the street will be with us always.”

Chicago Loop Alliance is stepping in, says Edwards, “both selfishly for ourselves, to have a more pleasant shopping experience on State Street, but also recognizing that these are people like you and me. They have lives like you and me. They have brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers. They just for whatever reason are in a bad situation.”

Photo by Steven Dahlman “What’s happening, Streets? I need helicopter glasses.”

(Left) Holding a shoe, Teddy, who is homeless, talks with Garcia at the corner of State & Adams Streets. Teddy was once placed at Mercy Housing, which provides housing for low-income people, but he refused it. Says Garcia, “He tells us he prefers to be out here.”

“That’s one of the biggest challenges,” says Garcia. “At a social service center, when they come to you, they’re looking for help. But when you’re dealing with an outreach, you’re trying to get them to think about a change, accepting help. A lot of them are doing what they’re doing because they’ve chosen it. So we plant the seeds of hope, of thinking about moving forward again. For some of them, it takes a year, two years before they even start asking deeper questions.”

Trying to understand the homeless

Six members of two “Street Teams” are employed full-time by Chicago Loop Alliance. They are outside six or seven days per week, depending on the season, covering a nine-block stretch of State Street. They work in two shifts – one from 7:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., the other from 3:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., debriefing during the half-hour overlap.

The cost is $360,000, representing 15 percent of CLA’s $2.4 million annual budget, money raised from a special assessment on about 40 properties along State Street, from Wacker Drive south to Congress Parkway. This State Street Special Service Area is re-confirmed every year by the Chicago City Council.

Street Team members have college degrees in social services, health care, and mental illness, plus additional training in first aid, CPR, and crisis intervention.

“They can begin to understand who’s homeless, what their issues are, and then channel them into the services that they need,” explains Edwards.

Chicago Loop Alliance (Left) On this map of the Chicago Loop, the yellow represents the area covered by the Street Teams, from Wacker Drive south to Congress Parkway.

Shelton’s background includes work as a security officer. Garcia has martial arts training.

Their least favorite part of the route is Pritzker Park, across Van Buren Street from Harold Washington Library Center.

“The park can be difficult,” says Garcia. His worst experience? “The lady who pulled a spear out on me.”

He’s seen panhandlers go into a store and change into clothes that look less destitute, before going home for the day. He’s had to call 911, which Street Team members did 157 times in 2015, an increase of 78 percent from the year before.

But he believes things are getting better, at least for the general public.

“When we first started doing this, there was a lot more aggressive people constantly walking up and down the street and now it happens a lot more rarely.”

Last year, Street Teams made more than 6,200 social service referrals, helping people find food, shelter, clothing, transportation, housing, and employment.

They will do whatever it takes to get a homeless person to the right service. They will pay for their L ride. They will ride with them. They will wait with them.

“I’m homeless because I want to be.”

One Chicagoan, Willie (right), had been homeless for at least nine years before a Street Team helped him connect with the right agencies to get identification, birth certificate, and social security card. Struggling with alcohol addiction, it was challenging for him just to save $20 needed for the birth certificate. He asked a Street Team to hold onto an envelope for him, containing money he would add to a few dollars at a time.

Photo by Steven Dahlman

Eventually, the Street Team helped him apply to a half-way house for recovering alcoholics, where he stayed for five months before transferring to another half-way house.

But he “fell off the wagon,” says Garcia, and they are working with him now to get his paperwork in order to try again.

“Every winter, he starts thinking about not being homeless.”

Photo by Steven Dahlman

There is not a single panhandler Garcia and Shelton do not know something about.

Of a woman (above) sitting on the sidewalk with an animal carrier outside a Starbucks at State & Adams Streets, Garcia says, “Her family lives here in Chicago, actually less than a mile from my house, I found out. She can go back at any time. Unfortunately, she’s choosing this lifestyle.”

Across State Street, another woman, Ruth, her face deformed by cancer, panhandles but is not homeless.

“She’s on disability so she comes here to compensate her income,” according to Garcia. “Most of the time she’s friendly. She’s always telling us who we need to help. She’ll buy food and give it to ones who actually are homeless.”

Public still discouraged from giving money to panhandlers

Street Teams will do whatever they can to help a homeless person but they will not give him or her money, as it is not a long-term solution.

“If you dry up the money, they will probably not leave Chicago but they’d leave State Street,” says Chicago Loop Alliance president Michael Edwards.

Instead, CLA produced a guide last year, directing the homeless to resources such as food and shelter. The guide was based on thousands of personal interactions with the homeless by Street Teams. More than 56,000 copies have been distributed.

Photo by James John Jetel (Left) Garcia and Shelton share a pamphlet with a homeless Chicagoan near Harold Washington Library Center. Photo by James John Jetel.

Despite the effort, Edwards says there will always be panhandlers on State Street.

“You’re never going to get rid of them. You’re not. All the money is on your street so they’re going to come there.”

State Street just part of the problem, of course

140,000 Chicagoans are homeless, according to Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. A task force announced by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in March is going to try to lower that number by making it easier for people to connect with resources, paying particular attention to the chronically homeless and homeless families with children. The Task Force to Reduce Homelessness will consist of 14 city agencies.

In May, Emanuel announced Chicago has received a $100,000 grant from Elks National Veterans Service Commission to help 50 homeless veterans find housing.

The homeless in Chicago are officially counted. The Point-In-Time Homeless Count is conducted every two years by Chicago Department of Family and Support Services. The data serves as a basis for federal funding, service and resource planning, and to raise public awareness about the homeless. The most recent count was on January 26 and a final report is expected this summer.

Related stories…

• Contact Steven Dahlman at sdahlman@loopnorth.com


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