Neighboring The Neighborless

So Who Are The Homeless? A story untold...

As I was riding the bus home from work one night, I noticed this woman sitting across from me.  Two girls in their 20s were sitting a few seats away laughing, rolling their eyes and pointing.  I don't think I'll ever understand what makes people feel entitled to treat others in such a terrible manner.

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She was wearing several sweaters and shirts layered under her coat.  On her legs were filthy, grey snow pants and a hot pink party skirt - you can see the tulle if you look carefully at the photo to the left.  What a heart-wrenching study in contrasts!

I don't know this woman's name or her story.  I didn't have the heart to ask her - she was utterly worn out.  I couldn't help noticing her chin bobbing down to her chest while she attempted to stay awake in vain; eventually, after several bouts of nodding off slightly before jerking upright, an exhausted sleep overtook her. 

Most heartbreaking, however, were her feet.  If you look closely, they were extremely swollen, the skin cracked and dry. Her right shoe must have had some pretty big holes because, wrapped around her foot and ankle were two plastic bags (an attempt to keep feet dry).

It just doesn't seem fair that, in addition to not having a way to stay warm and dry in cold, wet weather - something most of us take for granted - these people have to suffer through the humiliation of being ridiculed by people who are more privileged than they are.

So what did I do?  The same thing I always do.  I've learned that turning on the offenders with a few scathing comments of my own is usually bound to be an exercise in futility.  Instead, I reached into my purse and quietly took out a zip-lock bagged care package consisting of two pair of socks, toothpaste, deodorant, two granola bars, hand warmers and all-in-one wash and set it on top of the plastic grocery bag that contained the rest of her belongings.  As I returned to my own seat, I gave the girls a look of pity and slightly shook my head.  They'd been staring at me (I'm used to it by now) and as I met their eyes, they quickly looked away in silence.

'Nuff said.

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So Who Are The Homeless? This Is Abana

This is Abana.  He looks tough.  He sounds tough.  Actually, he is tough.  You'd probably give him a wide berth if you saw him coming your way on the sidewalk.  But here's what you don't know...

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He has to be tough after everything he's been through.  Abana had a life, a family, a job, a home.  His wife passed away 12 years ago due to a very brief battle against an extremely aggressive cancer.  His son, an aspiring student who defied the neighborhood norm and refused to join a gang, was shot to death in front of his own home.  Abana bore this burden and persevered.  He was a janitor.  That might not seem like much as far as work goes but you know what?  It kept a roof over his head and it paid the bills.  That is, until the recession hit three years ago.  Abana hung onto his job to the best of his abilities.  He was one of the last people to be let go but eventually, there was just no more work for him.  And soon afterward, he lost his home. 

I can't even begin to imagine what it must be like to walk a mile in Abana's shoes.  He has my utmost respect and I'm honored to know him.

So Who Are The Homeless? This is Hank.

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As I was walking home one night, after making my trek downtown, I saw a man shuffling along Clark Street several steps ahead of me. He seemed to be fairly well bundled up but there was something in the stoop of his shoulders that made me wonder...

I stepped up my pace and caught up with him in time to see that he indeed had a cup with a few coins in his hand. "Excuse me," I said. "Are you hungry?" He looked at me with a quiet gaze. "Yes, ma'am. Well. I'm okay. But maybe a little hungry." I asked, "How long's it been since you've eaten?" and, after a reflective sigh, was told, "I'm not sure. Two days maybe?" We happened to be near a sandwich shop. "C'mon," I said. "Let's get you something to eat." As it so happened, someone had taken me to lunch that day and I decided to pay their kindness forward.

After the gentleman received his food - again, I was astounded, by the way; contrary to the stigma of being greedy that so many homeless people are given, this guy practically had to be arm-wrestled into accepting my offer of a bag of chips, a cookie, and a beverage along with his sandwich! - we sat down and chatted.

This is Hank. He's worked his whole life until last spring when the company he worked for ran out of projects. Even though he himself has no home, once or twice each week, he volunteers at a neighborhood soup kitchen. Hank occasionally goes to homeless shelters for a night of sleep but not often. He says he feels that his few belongings are safer with him while he stays on the streets at night. I look at his cracked, raw hands and ask what he does to survive the weather. "That's just the thing," he answers. "I could ride the train a while but I don't dare fall asleep. If I do and the conductor doesn't come yell at me, another homeless person will find me, cut my pockets and take my things. You gotta keep your stuff close to you. So you walk all night and tell yourself, 'keep moving, keep moving,' and then, during the day, you try to find an out of the way place to sleep an hour or two."

Another Night Of Neighboring The Neighborless

The last two weeks in December, I went downtown a few more times than usual. Some trips were planned, others were spontaneous. Twice, I brought my daughter with me - she's heard about my volunteer work but, until now, has never had the opportunity to join me.

One night, we'd been out to dinner at Portillo's. I try to make sure I bring the pink bags with me whenever I know I'll be going downtown and this night was no exception. We decided to walk around and see if anyone in need was out and about. We saw a man on his knees, doubled over.

"Help me. Please. Somebody please help me," he moaned over and over again. His name was Levi and he hadn't eaten in days. After making sure he was alright, I gave him our left-overs, nearly half a pizza. We also gave him socks, deodorant, hand warmers and a few McDonald's bucks. We walked on.


Next, we met an older man, homeless and very, very drunk. Due to his intoxication and, we later learned, arthritis, he was unable to get up by himself. I braced my legs, offered him my hand and gently pulled him up. We chatted a while. He was in good spirits and thanked me for treating him like a human being. I hear that a lot. It makes you wonder what's happened in a person's life that causes him or her to thank you for treating them like they're human, you know?

As we made our way up Michigan Avenue, we passed out socks, toothpaste, and deodorant here and there. We walked past an indoor ATM kiosk and, in the window, I saw a homeless woman curled up and sleeping soundly. My daughter asked if we should go wake her but I thought it might be better to just let her sleep. The police would come along soon enough to make her move and I just hoped she could get a little rest until then. Did I make the right decision? I honestly don't know. But I truly hope and believe in my heart that I did.

The last person we met that night was a man who was standing in front of Water Tower Place. We found him hunched over, leaning on a walker, plastic bags wrapped around his bare feet. The temperature was 23 degrees outside. Again, I was astounded by the number of people who walked by without even glancing.

His name is Martin. I asked how his feet were doing; he confessed he hadn't looked at them in several days. He needs special orthopedic shoes. I'm still working on trying to find him a pair. Thank goodness he does have a pay-as-you-go cell phone; I got his number so I can call him occasionally and make sure he's okay.


You know, a few things jump out at me when I'm out helping street people. First, as I mentioned earlier, the number of people who walk by without even seeing them. It takes my breath away. The other thing is that, although I've been criticized occasionally for the work I do, I'm glad people see me out there. It never fails - someone always comments and says, "that's a good thing you're doing."

I can't help thinking that, for every person who says it, there are at least five others who are thinking it as they see me out there with my pink bags. I don't say this to brag or show off. I just hope it has a positive impact when people see me living my belief: Be the change you want to see in the world.

So Who Are The Homeless? Please Meet Sheena

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Sheena is an elderly woman I met on Thanksgiving night who had been kicked out of her senior living apartment a week earlier - everything she owned was bundled into plastic bags and attached to a rolling cart. She'd never been homeless before and she was so out of it that she wasn't quite sure what day it was. She was dirty, freezing cold, and very lonely. I found Sheena huddled on the bench in one of those tiny, little bus shelters.  She couldn't move very well so, at her request, I dug into her bags and found a blanket to cover her with. As I sat with her, a young woman who'd been to a restaurant for dinner walked up, asked me if Sheena was hungry and, when I confirmed that she was indeed homeless and hungry, graciously offered the large portion of left-overs she had planned to take home that night.

I look for Sheena often but haven't seen her since Thanksgiving night. I hope and pray that she's found a place to keep warm.



So Who Are The Homeless? I'd Like You To Meet Alex.

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This is Alex. He's just 18 years old, a recent high school graduate. The sign he's holding says

HOMELESS TEENS
PLEASE HELP
ANYTHING HELPS
Thank you SO MUCH!

Alex's mom is married to an alcoholic. There was a showdown at home last August and his stepfather said, "either the kid goes or I go." As it so often happens in an abusive home, out of fear, Alex's mom tearfully told him, "I'm sorry," and he found himself on the streets. In early September, he came to the city from a suburban town hoping to meet up with other kids and maybe find some work to do. Four months later, he was still on the street.

Alex tells me that he tries to keep a low profile so that he won't get roughed up by anyone. On the day we met, I took him into Dunkin' Donuts for some food. He didn't want to take advantage of me so I had to play the mom card and order him to actually accept a full combo meal and not just a sandwich. He smiled shyly and asked if he could have a hot chocolate, too. My heart shattered. And yes, he got his hot chocolate.

Home Again And Humbled

My name is Kelley and this is my story of how I try to make a difference by being a neighbor to the neighborless - the homeless people in our city.

Yesterday was COLD.  And WET.  And, oh my gosh, was it WINDY.  And more than 6,000 people here in Chicago had nowhere to go in order to get out of the weather.  I can't lie... I hate these days.  I wanted nothing more than to stay in my jammies, curl up under a blanket, and watch a few movies while sipping coffee.  But I didn't because I know there are people out there with nowhere to go, nothing to eat, and no way to keep warm.  So, once again, I packed up my pink bag and off I went.

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Off I Go To Do Some Neighboring...

  • A few dozen pair of socks?  Check.
  • Toiletries galore?  Check!
  • Extra plastic bags to store papers and miscellaneous items? Check!
  • Coffee, hot cocoa, sugars, creams and thermos of hot water?  Check, check, check and Check!

The pink bag is packed and I'm off to find street dwellers in the wet and windy urban jungle.  I'll be flittering around downtown between Division and Roosevelt.  Say hello if you see me!

No Matter The Weather...

Today is another one of those days... windy... bitterly cold... snow flurries... and last night there was a thunder storm.  If you've been following me for any length of time, you already know that I have a "more than" full-time job, working (at minimum) 50 hours each week.  I mention this for a very specific reason:  I worked last night and, afterward, as I was running - at midnight - from point A to point B, I stepped into a large, splashy puddle.  In the bone chilling night air.  It. Was. Awful.  My socks were immediately drenched.  And it instantly made me think of all of the homeless people on the streets who aren't lucky enough to go someplace warm to change clothes and curl up under warm covers after a hot bath at night.

So guess where I'm going today.  That's right - the pink bag is packed with socks, socks and more clean, dry socks to distribute.  

 Oh!  And today, I'll be bringing something else (I'm VERY excited about this):  HOME MADE CHICKEN NOODLE SOUP!  A very kind person gifted a large, sturdy thermos to the project.  I'm so excited to be able to offer this to the people I'll visit on the streets today!  I'll post an update to this entry when I get home tonight.

 

Until then...

Neighboring The Neighborless? Who Cares?

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This is a homeless woman who was sleeping in an ATM kiosk on a bone-chilling winter night.

Our culture is so incredibly hyper-focused on that which is easily seen... the perfect body, the latest fashions, having the coolest gadgetry. Even if we have none of these things, there are certain societal norms that we are expected to conform to and those who don't are considered undesirable, lesser people.

Did you see a panhandler in a wheelchair on the street while you were out doing a little shopping on your lunch break? He's probably a con-artist who's going to wheel around a corner, stand up and climb into his Lincoln Continental at the end of the day! Did you see a homeless person with missing teeth, bad body odor, smelling of urine on the CTA? Disgusting, right? Why don't these people get "real" jobs and quit bothering the rest of us?

Let's be honest. Most of us have had one or more of these thoughts run through our minds. These street people aren't "normal." They're a nuisance, possibly crazy, and probably on drugs - if we're not careful, they might even mug us! If we give them anything - well, why bother?  They're just going to use it to buy booze anyway!
They make us feel uncomfortable. We recoil in disgust, make jokes, or, at the very least, step out of the potential offender's path, hoping they won't single us out and make us feel even more uncomfortable.



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