06/19/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Of No Fixed Address: Red Tape

red tape, n. The collection or sequence of procedures required to gain bureaucratic approval for something, esp. when oppressively complex and time-consuming.

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

I am sitting on the sidewalk outside a KFC talking with Martin when Fast Eddie and his friend Kenneth come stumbling up. Eddie is pushing a red shopping cart -- known on the street as a "buggy." The cart is empty save three or four aluminum cans.

Eddie has been homeless off-and-on for 25 years. "You wanna know what life on the streets is like?" he says. "Get in the buggy! We'll show you!"

You know what? Let me tell you something. Let me tell you something, check this out. You know how children start on alcoholism? 'Cause you got all the yuppies leavin' beers on top of their porches. And when these kids get up in the morning, they see these beers sittin' around, and these kids start drinkin' early in the morning. That's how they get started. I don't have to spend a dime to get drunk. All you have to do is search and find. You got beers everywhere you go. Then the kids go through the alleys, comin' home from school, and they find all the motherfuckin' beers. And now you got kids out here. You know what I'm sayin'? Because of you guys. Because of you motherfuckin' upper-class motherfuckin' white boys. Y'all leave beers every-motherfuckin'-where. Everywhere. (He turns to Kenneth.) Am I tellin' the truth?

Y'all turn over garbage cans, and you blame it on homeless people. Y'all turn over garbage cans, and you create problems, and you break into cars, and bust windows. Homeless people don't do that shit. We ain't got nowhere to go already as it is. Why are we gonna tear up the neighborhood when we ain't got nowhere to go already as it is? (To Kenneth.) Am I lyin'? I ain't lyin'.

"What do you think causes homelessness?" I ask.

Red tape. You have to go through the red tape. First of all, they take our IDs when they -- when you do a check on us, you steal our IDs from us. Now we ain't got no IDs. Now we gotta go back downtown and buy IDs. Where the hell we gonna get $20 from?

As I mentioned in a post last October, during his first term as governor, Rod Blagojevich signed legislation raising the price of state-issued ID cards from $4 to $20. And although the state waives this fee for seniors and disabled individuals, there is currently no assistance available for homeless or economically disadvantaged applicants.

Overpriced ID cards may not be at the root of homelessness, but they do make for one hell of a stumbling block. Without proof of identity, homeless men and women cannot apply for food stamps, they are ineligible for most jobs and their access to public aid is greatly limited. Even some homeless shelters will not admit guests who do not have a valid ID.

Now we gotta come up with $20 and go back downtown and buy an ID, 'cause you take our IDs when you drive off. And the police, they harass us, and they harassin' the wrong people. Fuck you. I'm neighborhood watch. I see everything. I'm the eyes. I see everything movin', everything comin'. That's what the truth is, man.

We are organization by ourselves. We don't have to belong to a gang. Street people is a network. Is a network. We don't have to take nothin' from nobody, 'cause we got enough people that gives us enough. We don't want for nothin'. We eat good, we sleep good. Everywhere we go, we got everything we need. And it's a good life.

A few weeks later, I run into Eddie again. He greets me with a warm smile. It is Super Bowl Sunday. He and a few of his friends have just come from the liquor store. They have two large grocery bags filled with booze, but no place to watch the game. "We gotta figure that out real soon," Eddie says, and then gestures to a red fire hydrant on the corner:

Step into my office. I panhandle right here at this fire hydrant. This is where everything happens. On a Friday, Saturday, Thursday night. You got to be in the mainstream. That's how we make our livin', you know what I'm sayin'? It's the only way we can do it. We survive the best we can. Another man's garbage is another man's riches. What you throw away in the garbage, believe it or not, either if I can't sell it, I can use it. And that's how I survive. And that's what we do.

The buggies keeps us out of trouble. But see, we're not thieves or anything like that. Our buggies is our house, man. That's our livelihood, you know what I'm sayin'? This is how we live. We got to carry, everywhere we go, we got to carry our blankets, we got to carry -- because everybody out here is homeless, damn near seems like it. If we lose our blankets, we're an asshole out. So we got to keep our buggies with us.

Let me tell you something. If we're caught with a buggy with a logo comin' from maybe, perhaps, Osco or Jewel or anything like that, that's a theft charge. We get charged for theft for just havin' a buggy. This is how they treatin' us. We can't afford to get on the bus anymore. Now the buses are costin' us $2 one way. That means we have to get off and walk back. There ain't no round trips no more. We can't stay on the Els.

They makin' it really tight on us. You know, make it tight on us like that then you create anger. Because then what else do we have to do? We have to defend ourselves. Where do we have to sleep no more? It's gettin' really tight out here. Then they're buildin' fences out here. We can't sleep anywhere, we can't go anywhere. They make it tight, so where are we supposed to go now? We have nowhere to go. So now what? So now it's a standoff. And this is where we're at.

Addendum: Last Wednesday, the Illinois Senate voted unanimously to amend the Illinois Identification Card Act. This bill, which would eliminate the $20 fee for all homeless applicants, passed the House nearly two months ago. It is now sitting on Gov. Pat Quinn's desk awaiting his signature. Should the Governor sign the bill, the fee waiver will take effect on July 1, 2010. One roll of tape at a time.