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.