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Of No Fixed Address: Poor Is Everybody

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A lot of these people don't wanna be homeless. You know, they want a place of they own. They wanna get they lives back together. But nobody's comin' out to help 'em. Nobody's sayin', "Well, what can I do? What can we do?"

--Toni

This is the second in a series of excerpts from my book, Of No Fixed Address: A Collection of Voices from the Streets of Chicago. Read more about the project here.

POOR IS EVERYBODY

It is Saturday morning, and I am at a semi-weekly brunch at a North Side church. A series of long, rectangular card tables line the church's large multi-purpose room. There are roughly 120 seats. The coffee is flowing, and the volunteer chefs are making the final preparations for the day's meal.

A man on the street once said to me, "I wish I could just go somewhere and be with some people. You know, just socialize with some people. Not a shelter. Just a place to hang out, you know? But I'm homeless, man. I ain't got nowhere to go." Brunches like these seem to fill that void. People pour in from the streets, greeting friends with hugs and handshakes, and saving seats for those who have yet to arrive.

Macey is sitting at the end of a table with five or six of her friends, all men. She is wearing a clean white sweater, and she looks especially well-put together compared with the rest of her group. Initially, she speaks in a dispassionate, matter-of-fact tone, but as our conversation progresses, she grows increasingly fervent.

I'm forty-nine years old. Work in Chicago. Went to Northern Illinois University. I got a degree in Computer Science. Worked for IBM for fifteen years. And then IBM decided to downsize. Came back from Portland, Oregon. Moved back here. In the process of doin' that--came back because my grandmother was sick--my grandmother died. And then I was raped. And then my mother threw me out the house. And that was in ninety-two.

I ask her to tell me about her first night on the street.

First night, it was December 23rd, 1992. My mother got pissed at me and took me down to Kenmore and Bryn Mawr to detox. 'Cause I was drunk. I stayed the night there. Then the next night I had to go to Uptown Baptist Church. You get there at eight thirty, and they put you out at quarter to six in the mornin'. Freezin' cold, alright? So from there, you go and you stand by the Salvation Army. You stand there until eight o'clock. Now this is, you know, December in Chicago. It's freezing. Go in there, you eat. Half-hour later, you're back outside. You gotta stand and wait again for another door to open. And that's how it is here in Chicago for homeless people.

As a woman it can be frightenin', unless you got a man with you. You know, there's a group of you together. You get a lot of people that just think that you're, you know, you're not worth anything. So I tend to carry a little Swiss Army knife on me at all times. But it's not a good situation. Not for a woman.

"What about shelters?" I ask.

They're more equipped for men than they are women, I find. Women, we tend to want to take a shower everyday. A lot of these places, you can only take a shower once or twice a week. When it comes down to toiletries and stuff like that, they're not prepared for a woman's monthly problem. Women, we tend to, if you're around dirt and filth you can get yeast infections and things like that.

A lot of the guys out here, their way of stayin' warm is drinkin'. A woman can't do a lot of that. You do that, you tend to break down. You tend to look old, feel old. And a lot of these places won't take you if you drink a lot.

I'm back on the street now because I lost my job. But I'm workin' again. So hopefully I'll be okay in a couple of weeks. I'm working right now at a telemarketing service. I've got over thirty years customer service experience. I'm makin' twelve dollars an hour. So when I get my check in another week, I'll get an apartment. It'll be in a hotel. And I'll be okay.

Single Room Occupancy hotels usually rent rooms on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. For some homeless people, moving to an SRO is the first step in establishing a stable living condition. For others, these hotels function as little more than private shelters, and a homeless person could spend a lifetime floating from one room to the next.

When you talk about poor, poor's not just black. Poor is also white, minorities, Mexicans, the whole bit. So you can't say anymore that the poor people now is primarily African-American. Poor, now, is everybody.

In the state of Illinois alone, there are thirty thousand homeless children. Now if you sayin' thirty thousand homeless children just in the state of Illinois, if you multiply that times fifty, look at how many children there are that don't have homes.

In a 2005 report coordinated by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and prepared for the Illinois Department of Human Services, Timothy Johnson and Ingrid Graf estimated that there are nearly 25,000 unaccompanied homeless youth in Illinois. This estimate only includes individuals age 12 to 21 who, at the time of data collection, were not primarily in the care of a parent or legal guardian. It does not include wards of the state nor children in foster care programs.

You know, Leave No Child Behind. I mean, you're gonna leave 'em behind if you're not givin' their families a place to live. You can't live in a car and go to school. It's the same thing with a lot of women out here. There's a lot of homeless women out here that are pregnant, they gonna have babies. So if they have babies, that means that's another addition to people that are gonna be illiterate. Okay? And if there's no money, if there's nobody speakin' up for 'em, then nothin's ever gonna be done about it.

If you look at all the countries that exist in the world, we take care of all those countries. We are the richest and most powerful country in the world. We don't have national health insurance. Why is it that we take care of all these other countries, give them things that are necessities of life? Food, shelter, and clothing, those are three necessities of life! We'll take care of Israel. We'll take care of Bosnia. We'll take care of Afghanistan. We'll take care of Pakistan. But we don't take care of Chicago, Illinois. Something's wrong with that picture.