Special ReportThe Forgotten Passengers

In Harsh Winter, Fewer Homeless Turned to Lower Wacker Drive

By Amy Notestein and Bob Bailey

Posted: Tuesday, April 22, 2014

During the peak of the winter season, wind chills below negative-30 can occur more than once. For many Chicagoans, it’s an inconvenience, something to complain about.

But for the city's homeless, it can be life threatening.

There are numerous homeless shelters throughout the city that offer a place to sleep 24 hours a day during severe weather conditions. Some shelters even keep their doors open two or three days straight just so people can have a place to stay, away from the below zero temperatures.

Although the city provides temporary housing for the homeless, these opportunities are limited, and those who qualify sometimes choose otherwise anyway. They rather sleep on the streets. But when the streets are covered in snow and the wind chill is below zero, where do they go?

“You hang out in the cultural center or at the libraries,” said Tyrone Carter, 52, shaking his McDonalds cup of change. “And you can ride the CTA all day – day and night.”

Despite the numerous homeless shelters around Chicago, some people said they simply don’t know where to go.

“I don’t know of any shelters,” Nikisha Morris, a 38-year-old woman from Atlanta who has been homeless for only three weeks said. “I’ll probably have to find a shelter soon.”

Morris who has no family in Chicago, found a job over the winter with Koch foods and worked to get her car back, hoping it would expand opportunities for employment. After paying off $439 in tickets, Morris got laid off, just $30 short of getting her car back. Now she’s panhandling to stay alive, let alone drive.

“It's crazy to think about all the things I could've done with that 439 dollars if I had known what the situation would be now.”

Wearing layers of sweaters and coats, the homeless try their best to stay warm- a task made particularly difficult by the record-breaking 26 days at or below zero this season. The winter that previously held the record with 25 days: 1884-85.

“Some of them said to us that it’s not as cold as they said it was going to be,” said Nick Benedetto, director of case management services at Franciscan Outreach. “And I’m clearly standing there with my hand over my nose, freezing when I’m talking to them because my skin is burning from the cold. And they’re telling me that it’s not that cold.”

Donald Sherrod, 56, focuses most of his panhandling around Jackson and State, acknowledged the particularly cold weather.

“But I’m [going to] make it though,” Sherrod said, taking a sip from his strawberry shake, which he had asked the Burger King employee to put inside a paper bag. “I’m [going to] be alright.”

While Sherrod spends his nights at shelters, many homeless people choose to avoid them “because the shelters are overcrowded and uncomfortable,” said Carter, who wears a VANS hat in an attempt to blend in with the public.

“They didn’t like to be around a lot of people, and it could be pretty chaotic for them,” Benedetto said. “They would say they couldn’t get any sleep, or some people [that] have mental health issues are just too paranoid to do that.”

Chicagoans were once used to seeing homeless people sleeping in cardboard huts on loading docks, but that was before the city decided to make changes.

“Lower Wacker Drive is not the way it used to be,” Benedetto, 55, said. “There used to be a huge number of people that lived down there, and then when they rebuilt Lower Wacker Drive they put up all these concrete barriers with wrought iron fences where people can’t go behind it. It eliminated a lot of the spots where people used to live, and it just kind of pushed them to other areas.”

The harsh winter affects not only where these homeless people rest their heads at night, but also the way they make their money.

“Winter months are typically the slowest months for our vendors,” said Sarah Brown, director of social services at StreetWise. “We encourage our vendors, first and foremost, to be safe and take precautions during these months.  We also encourage vendors to be aware of the traditional dip in revenue and to budget for it.”

Since it’s challenging for homeless people to make a living during the winter, it can be pretty competitive among these individuals as to where they claim their spots.

The homeless typically search for their spot in the morning, laying claim to their territory. During the slow parts of the day, they often seek shelter, either inside a coffee shop or underground on the streets or subway. At the end of the day, they will pack up and go back to where they are staying.

Some homeless take to the streets and panhandle to make a living, but others turn to organizations to assist them in making a usable income.

StreetWise, for example, provides a path to employment and an immediate means of income, which can go a long way for participants in the program, in terms of obtaining housing, transportation and other resources needed to create stability.

“In a lot of ways they’re trying to make an honest living by doing that,” Benedetto said of the StreetWise vendors. “And then there are panhandlers who are hustling for whatever survival that they’re trying to take care for themselves.” The vendors “actually have something tangible that they’re selling and not just hustling for peoples’ money.”

Although StreetWise vendors require a badge to sell the newspaper, panhandling is covered under the First Amendment, making it legal to panhandle without a permit.

“If they’re drug addicts they definitely need to supply themselves with drugs or alcohol,” Benedetto said. “But that’s not necessarily true every time they go out there to pan handle. Sometimes they do want to get some clothing, or sometimes they do want to get something to eat.”

Various homeless individuals suffer from severe alcohol and substance issues. Most shelters prohibit the use of alcohol or drugs in the shelters, making staying at a shelter not a viable option.

“And then some have had some traumatic experiences in the past, maybe they got into a fight with somebody, and they don’t want to go back because of that,” Benedetto said.

While there are many explanations as to why homeless people avoid staying at a shelter, they still have a difficult time finding a place to keep warm.

“If anybody died this year, if they were homeless, it was probably somebody that maybe was out drinking all night- maybe passed out in an alley, and then just succumbed to the elements,” Benedetto said. “You know, froze.”

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