Of No Fixed Address: A Collection of Voices from the Streets of Chicago

10/24/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Based on a 40-hour workweek, to afford an apartment in Chicago you need to make:

$14.12 an hour for a studio
$16.15 an hour for a one bedroom
$18.15 an hour for a two-bedroom

In Illinois, the minimum wage is $7.50 an hour.

--National Low Income Housing Coalition

Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood is garnished with lavish nineteenth-century houses--a medley of ornate wood cornices, bay windows, and rough-hewn stone facades. In the summer, the trees form a lush canopy over the streets, protecting the manicured gardens from the hot sun. And if you stand beneath this canopy, on a quiet residential street, surrounded by sunflowers and marigolds, it is easy to forget that you're in the middle of the third largest city in the country.

With a population of nearly 2.9 million, Chicago has more than 200 neighborhoods. Collectively, these neighborhoods constitute one of America's most diverse metropolises. Individually, however, they are remarkably homogeneous--each distinguished by race, class, or ethnicity--and the divisions between them are rarely ambiguous. (The term "redlining" was actually coined in Chicago.) Despite a series of ongoing efforts to combat segregation--all part of the Chicago Housing Authority's multi-billion-dollar Plan for Transformation--Chicago's lower classes remain at the mercy of these thick red lines, effectively barred from large swaths of the city.

The homeless are a unique exception to these constraints. Not bound by property taxes or rent hikes, a surprising number of homeless people flock to the more affluent areas of the city in search of better shelters, lucrative panhandling markets, and overall safety. So on the busy streets that frame Lincoln Park's expressions of grandeur, you will find some of America's poorest citizens. Panhandlers stand outside Walgreens, junk-filled shopping carts parade through the alleys, and it's not that uncommon to see someone sprawled out across the sidewalk, clutching a half pint of vodka with his bare ass hanging out of his pants.

Four years at a liberal arts college taught me how to speak sensitively and compassionately about the poor. But on a college campus that doubles as an arboretum, boasting 230 species of trees, the notion of poverty amounts to little more than series of liberal buzzwords. When I moved to Lincoln Park in the summer of 2005, I had no idea what to make of these homeless people wandering up and down the streets just outside my front door.

Beyond an overwhelming sense of curiosity, I can't say for sure what it was that prompted me to buy a tape recorder and invite a homeless man to breakfast at a local diner. Impulse, I suppose. But--and I realize I run the risk of sounding overly sentimental here--as I loaded the cassette and pressed record, I had absolutely no idea what I was about to get myself into.

In retrospect, the details of Robert's story are not entirely unexpected. Born in a taxicab and raised on the South Side of Chicago, his childhood dream was to become a professional boxer like Floyd Patterson. Fought too much as a young boy, didn't graduate high school, worked in a factory, drank on the job, crashed a forklift, lost that job, got another job, suffered an injury, lost that job, couldn't pay the rent, continued to drink, and so forth. His is a classic tale of the American Dream gone awry.

"I'm fifty-eight years old," he said. "I had my time. To me, I've blown it. I have no dreams. The cars, the homes, the white yard, the picket fence, grass, wife, kids, blah, blah. That's history. I'm fifty-eight. I don't want no home. I'm too old to take care of a house, cut grass, shovel the snow. I ain't into that."

But as Robert recounted his failed ambitions, I began to see that beneath the ruins of these ambitions, he had other dreams that were very much alive. And like so many people I would soon meet, in the face of despair, Robert carries on--driven by the hope that maybe tomorrow things will get just a little bit better.

"I didn't learn how to do the basic part of readin' and writin'," he continued. "I didn't get that. You ain't got that, my mama said, you ain't got nothin'. If I would've stayed in school and had the right job, I feel my book would be on the streets today. Is it too late for that book? I don't know. I ain't got nobody, I ain't got no help."

He paused.

"But that's another dream. You talk about dreams. That's a dream--if I could write a book and put it out and see the people readin' it. That's a dream."

As a devout agnostic, I find it a little uncomfortable to speak of a "calling," as if someone sitting in a cloud somewhere blew his horn and suddenly I was on the path to enlightenment. But my conversation with Robert was a calling: it was one person calling to another. Robert has a story to tell, but he doesn't know how to read or write; I have a tape recorder, a computer, a college education, and no day job.

Thus began my odyssey with Chicago's tramps and vagabonds, bag ladies and bums, with the displaced and the disposed. Over the next ten months, I spoke with more than one hundred homeless people throughout the city. I sat with men and women as they panhandled, I talked with them as they sold newspapers, and I began frequenting meals served at local churches. Eventually, I committed these stories to paper, arranging them into an oral history of homelessness: Of No Fixed Address: A Collection of Voices from the Streets of Chicago. In coming weeks and months, I will be posting excerpts from this book on Huffington Post Chicago.

For more than twenty-five years, homelessness has received considerable attention from the news media and the social science community. But with very few exceptions, the homeless have not been afforded the opportunity to share their voices in their own words, and despite a quarter century's worth of coverage, the homeless remain a largely voiceless population.

Inevitably, oral history elicits a series of concerns about accuracy and bias. Many of these concerns are well-founded, and there is no doubt in my mind that oral history is an imperfect medium. But the oral tradition forms the bedrock for all contemporary historical methodologies. What oral history lacks in objectivity, it makes up for in its unique ability to capture the ideas, the insights, and the voices that constitute our collective conscious--as a culture, a society, and a people.

I think you'll find that each of these stories serves, in its own way, to illustrate the matchless power of the oral tradition. Perhaps the most clearly articulated argument for oral history comes from a man named David, who, at the end of an impassioned description of a shit-covered toilet, says, "I'm just makin' a record for somebody, like years later, to say, 'What was this like?' or whatever. 'Cause they're not gonna tell you this at the cross-your-legs church social. But this is how real life is."

Stay tuned.