Homeless: The wetness of my pocket dollar

Homeless, Chicago Wilson Viaduct

Homeless. The wetness of my pocket dollar. Tented shelter.

It’s often said that “Chicago is a city of neighborhoods.” This may seem redundant—isn’t every city a city of neighborhoods? But Chicago really is a big, wonderful combination of unique enclaves. There is a neighborhood for everyone! And the housing ranges from modest to opulent to lakefront tents.

The Wilson Avenue viaduct under Lakeshore Drive is home to a tented neighborhood. Tents are placed side by side along the underpass wall. As I recently drove through this neighborhood for the first time, I was both horrified and impressed at the innovativeness of the homeless occupants.

Chicago homeless people are common to every street corner. I even adopted one for Christmas. I keep dollar bills handy to pass into asking hands. It is a simple exchange. I don’t judge if the homeless person is smoking or smells of alcohol. They usually are and do. I often have a Starbucks in my cup holder and they have never judged me, either. I have no patience for people who worry about how their hard-earned dollar is being spent. Give me strength. I exchange a dollar for a grin, thank you, and God Bless (let’s cheer for faith) and drive on. I’m not an over-thinker.

However, driving past people living in tents under a wet viaduct, their overfilled garbage cans and shopping carts parked alongside their tented abodes, leads me to wonder.

At first I am horrified that people are living under viaducts like rats. I also suspect that the neighborhood surrounding them does not welcome their lakefront tent dwellings. Property values, you know. I could imagine the (not completely unwarranted) tsk-tsking in my head: I strongly object to allowing those people to camp there. Those people are a health risk. Those people need to get a jobs. Those people are ruining the parks. Those people should get out.

And then after the initial shock, I wondered who those people are, and what their story is. Where did they get their tents? There innovativeness is impressive. So Cole (my 20-year-old), who shares my curiosity, and I headed back to the viaduct with our camera to take pictures of those people and their tented community.

We went in the early morning; traffic was light. Most of the occupants were tucked into their tents. The ground was wet from a heavy rainstorm the night before. We walked along the median between the two rows of tents, out of respect for the late risers and my overblown fear of Chicago’s rat population. Some of the tents had patio chairs in front of them and most had overloaded garbage bags or shopping carts nearby containing worldly belongings. We did not feel afraid. The community felt peaceful. One woman came out of her tent to wave at us. I asked her if we could take her picture and she agreed. In exchange, I offered her $2.00. Her hands were beyond dirty and she smelled, but her smile was bright and her God Bless was genuine. Another older man was outside his tent smoking and declined my picture request while wondering who sent us.

As we walked out from under the viaduct, I was keenly aware that I wasn’t any closer to understanding how we might offer those people a better way of life. I don’t know them, and I hadn’t heard their stories. I don’t know what a better way of life means to them. It would be beyond hubris to suggest that I understand them or their circumstances. 

What I do know is those people are doing the best they can with what they have, from where they are. I respect them for their efforts. I respect them for climbing out of their tent every morning, pushing their grocery carts and garbage bins through Chicago neighborhoods and standing on street corners asking for that dollar. I believe they have earned that respect from all of us. 

Odd Loves Company,

* I learned later that the picture at the top of the post and peaking out of her tent below is Linda B., she crochets hats and other items from her tent to sell.

Homeless, Chicago Wilson Viaduct Homeless, Chicago Wilson Viaduct Homeless, Chicago Wilson Viaduct Homeless, Chicago Wilson Viaduct
Homeless, Chicago Wilson Viaduct
Homeless, Chicago Wilson Viaduct Homeless, Chicago Wilson Viaduct

Homeless, Chicago Wilson Viaduct

Homeless, Chicago Wilson Viaduct

14 thoughts on “Homeless: The wetness of my pocket dollar

  1. Thank you for posting this. The homeless population is hard to serve. I’ve worked on a lot of committees that attempt to help but rarely succeed the way they hope. The problem circles around on itself. Often the person has issues beyond living space that need to be addressed. Self medicating is common because they can’t afford the medical attention they need or can’t manage the paperwork that needs to be filled out. If you don’t have an address or a phone it is next to impossible for others to follow up with you. Finding housing is a challenge and creating more housing takes money and community agreement as to where to build it. Homeless people are often skeptical of government help, and fiercely independent. I agree that they deserve our respect. The life they lead is not an easy one. It is exhausting. I believe keeping the conversation going is one of the best things we can do in working towards a solution. Veterans make up a large portion of the homeless population and as more return from Iraq and Afghanistan we need to be ready to to help them as needed.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful response. Keeping the conversation going is something I can do. And perhaps just pay attention more. Perhaps with intention and attention we make some headway towards helping the homeless tell us more about what is wanted and needed.

  2. Sure makes me grateful for the roof that keeps my head dry. It is hard to be judgmental when you think that you could be in the same predicament, if you’d had different parents, fought in a war, suffered mental hardships, or just been down on your luck. I am quite conservative and believe people should work on their own behalf but I also know some people need more help than others and believe we should find away to help them.
    I usually have a some change or a dollar to give to someone who asks. And I try to help keep the food bank stocked. You do what you can and hope it helps.

    • So true. We all think we work hard to “get where we are.” while sometimes forgetting that we were given a lot we never had to work for…like strong, loving parents, an education, or maybe just a spark to find one other person who we were willing to let help us along the way. Your right you can only do what you can and I think that is always enough.

  3. I often go past this space on the way to the dog beach and wonder about the residents; thanks for taking it a step further and spending a little time with them. Like you, I try not to judge, but I do wonder what would help — or maybe “help” is the wrong idea, maybe we just need to recognize our common humanity.

    • Maybe we just need to recognize our common humanity. Such wise and kind words. I think “just” doing that is a very good start for all of us! Thank you.

  4. Beautifully written. Most of the residents of the tents are far better neighbor’s then some in this area (bullets flying on our busy corners several times in the last month). I believe many of the tents are given by homeless advocacy groups.

  5. I think we need to redesign our viaducts and underpasses to support this community. I’ve spent hours reading articles on help and solutions and there are some positive things happening all over the world. The homeless can be classified into many different groups, and there are different solutions for each one of them. Some solutions are already in place and being utilized. I would say the hardest solution to find an answer to is this one you have spoken about. I feel we need to support them any way we can, $’s, food, blankets…….most of these people are never going to work again…….. They just can’t! And as you said, never judge.

    • Thanks for stopping in Andrea and contributing. I know so little about the actual homeless problem beyond what I can see with my own eyes. I love the idea of making the Viaducts livable. Why not! If we all help, however we can our efforts may not be organized but I agree they will make a difference. And your right, not everyone can help themselves—first you need bootstraps before you can pull them up.

  6. I don’t have any answers either. There are so many organizations that try to step in to address the homeless situations all across our country but I suspect they all fall short in various ways. Some of these people are perfectly content with living this way . Many have mental health issues. There is no one solve all answer but I applaud you and Cole for trying to understand, for pressing a dollar bill into a hand, for being non judgmental and for just being present and seeing. Most people try to avoid looking. You sought it out. Thanks for a wonderful post. I wish I had answers but posts like yours make me know that I can continue to attempt to make a small difference right where I am at.

    • I think you are right—there is no one answer. The tag homeless has a lot of different meanings. For this reason, I don’t have any desire to join an advocacy group or any organization to solve the “homeless problem.” Mostly, because I think while well intended these groups miss asking the all important question to the person they want to help…”What ails you.”
      Your welcome, thanks for contributing to the conversation along with all the giving you give.

  7. Katybeth, I’m glad you posted this so I could remember to be grateful for how blessed I am! I can’t imagine living in a tent like that — shoot, I’d be afraid to camp out in my own backyard, for fear of snakes and such!! You know, it’s fairly easy to contribute to homeless causes, but what you and Cole are doing — putting actual money into the hands of those who need it most — that’s generosity.

    • Thank you Debbie, I know what you mean about feeling blessed. I feel the same way. Thank Goodness for the roof over my head. Not much of a camper either… And here is a story for you….Today, when I handed a homeless woman who was standing out in the pouring rain a couple of dollars, she look right at me and and said, “I am so blessed. Thank you.” Most of the time the homeless say, “God Bless you,” and always thank you…So her response took me by surprise as I realized that even living in a tent, standing in the rain, accepting wet dollar bills you can fill blessed….

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