The following story originally appeared in EXTRA News, a bi-lingual community newspaper in Chicago, IL, on Feb 12, 2015.
While 20 inches of snow fell in a single 24-hour period, most Chicagoans threw on a sweater and huddled around their radiators for the relentless wind and snow to pass. But for some of Chicago’s most distressed residents, the snowfall found them in the middle of a life-and-death struggle to stay alive.It should come as no surprise that Chicago has a large population of poverty-stricken individuals. According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau estimates, 22.6 percent of Chicago residents live at or below federal poverty lines. Chicago’s own 2014 Point-in-Time Homeless Count identified 6,294 individuals in one night, 965 of which were found to be on the streets or in public areas.
Despite announcing his “Plan 2.0 to End Homelessness,” which emphasized a decline in overall homelessness as of a October 2014 progress report, Mayor Emanuel and other mayoral candidates have remained quiet during debates on the issue. Throughout the current election, several of the candidates that have policies on the issue have attempted to address homelessness, like Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s with his municipal I.D. proposal, and William “Dock” Walls’ initiative to reform the Chicago Housing Authority.
Despite this current winter being mild in comparison to years past, there are already sporadic reports of squatters frozen to death in vacant buildings in neighborhoods throughout the city.Many community groups do exist throughout the city, however, often run by churches and local advocacy groups, with the interest of serving the neediest of the community.
The Center for Changing Lives (CCL), based out of Humboldt Park, has served the community for 25 years by providing people with the resources they need to obtain housing and jobs, and help them establish a line of credit so that they can provide for their families, explained CCL’s Community Engagement Coordinator Lissette Castaneda. “We primarily serve the Latino community because we realized that Latino homelessness looks like two or three families doubled or tripled up, and they’re not necessarily the people who are accessing shelter services, and so they are actually often under-counted.”
“The idea, with homelessness in general, is trying to get at the root cause of [homelessness],” explains Castaneda. “That person would come in and their first appointment would be with one of our resource development coaches. Our coach would work with them to develop a larger goal, sort of thinking past the crisis…and help them move forward towards a bigger vision that they have in their life.”
From there, she said, they would meet with a housing and financial coach who would work specifically on their housing and financial goals to find out each families’ needs.
Services provided by these groups are invaluable such as the weekly community dinners at Logan Square’s St. Luke’s Lutheran Church.
Christa Creps, director of St. Luke’s community dinners feels that the community should share, especially in times of need.
“We pass a plate around and everyone gets something to eat,” said Creps. “We have a lot of elderly people, people on fixed incomes, who want to stay in the neighborhood they’ve lived in, sometimes for 14 years. They have less disposable income, so they come to our program. When the weather is bad, we get a different type of person coming in. There tends to be more people who are in trouble. A lot of these people, especially in Logan, [the cold] cuts into their food budget.
During the dinners, RN Marie Claire Narcisse walks up and down the hall at St. Luke’s, volunteering more than just her time.
“This lady, man she saved me,” beams “Carlos” in a new pair of boots donated to St. Luke’s. With a proud arm around a blushing Narcisse, he continues, “She don’t remember ‘cause she does it so much, but I had an infection, and she wrapped me up with her own scarf like it was nothing. Just like that!”
“It’s what I do every day,” said a modest Narcisse. “I work as a nurse…and I was looking to do more. I was doing the same things, every day, and it just wasn’t enough. People would come and then they would go. I prayed, I asked God, ‘What do I do?’ Now I don’t know a client, I know a person.”
This post is also available in: Spanish