Homeless in a pandemic-stricken Chicago – Chicago Reader

Underneath the city streets on Lower Wacker, many people have set up encampments along a stretch of concrete and iron rust. It can smell like gasoline, cat urine, pigeon droppings, rat decay, mold, and rotted fruit, depending on where you’re standing. At night the light is harsh and artificial, and the hum of cars, buses, and trucks never stops. Those who live here call it the Underworld. Some struggle with PTSD and substance use disorder. It’s late December 2020, and they are all trying to survive.

Drew is soft-spoken, very thin with earnest brown eyes. He once worked in construction. He’s been holding a sign to make money, but he doesn’t make enough. He lives in a tent.

“Everyone’s still working from home, but we’re all out here. It was hard for us before. It’s even harder now,” he told me last winter. “I have to provide for my son and myself . . . I have bigger things to worry about on a daily basis than a virus I may or may not get, that may or may not kill me. I may die anyway.”

Stacey lives with her boyfriend Greg Smith and their cat Simba in the tent next to Drew. Her face, framed by light brown hair, looks pale as she pulls a dark ski hat down over her forehead to stay warm. Weeks before I met her, she had recovered from a swollen black eye after getting punched when trying to protect another woman from an aggressor. Like Stacey, Greg is caring and hospitable. When we meet, he rushes to find his folding chair so I’ll have a comfortable place to sit. 

He’s on a long waiting list for housing. Often, unmarried couples on housing waiting lists are not allowed placement together. His belongings rest in a heap outside his tent: blankets, clothes, cardboard boxes, a pair of sandals, a cane, Simba’s crate and cat food, a backpack, a small suitcase, nine notebooks, and a novel about Che Guevara. Greg, Stacey, and Drew share chocolate that I had picked up at a drugstore. 

At the other end of the street, John doesn’t have a tent. He’s white and looks younger than 31, boyish, with messy brown hair and a scruffy beard. He’s curled up inside of a sleeping bag, surrounded by a pile of bottled water, dirty blankets, junk food, and a cardboard sign that asks for help. When I call his name, he peeks his head out and blinks, adjusting a faded disposable mask over his face. He gently closes the Terry Pratchett novel he was reading.

“Once you become homeless it’s so hard to get out of that hole,” John says. “If you don’t have a working phone, if you don’t have an ID, if you don’t have a place to take a shower, if you don’t have a place you can sleep every night—what, you just walk into a restaurant and you’re like, ‘I haven’t showered in a couple of weeks and I have no address, no way to get ahold of me, but I’m looking for work! Hire me?’ When people shout at you, ‘Get a job!’ you have to slow them down and be like, ‘Let’s talk about this sensibly.’ But they’re not going to want to listen.”

Tonight, he’s grateful—a woman gave him a $20 gift card to Walgreens and a $20 gift card to McDonald’s. These he can actually use. Sometimes people leave heaps of food at his feet. He has no place to store it. It just attracts more rats. “I feel so bad,” he says. “I don’t want to turn down food, but I can’t eat 45 turkey dinners.” He too is on a waiting list for housing. “There’s, like, [housing info] sheets that say, ‘could take ten to 25 years,’” he says.

John sleeps outside, with his sleeping bag, food leftovers, and other belongings, in a loud and dusty corner of Lower Wacker. Propped beside him is a cardboard sign that reads: HOMELESS, COLD and HUNGRY, ANYTHING HELPS, and GOD BLESS. Courtesy Sarah Gelbard

In the summer of 2020, advocates from the Chicago Housing Initiative raised questions about the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA). The agency failed to fill 1,250 empty units, according to documents obtained through a FOIA request. A CHA representative declined to be interviewed for this story, but e-mailed a brief statement on the agency’s commitment to “supporting permanent affordable housing solutions” for homeless Chicagoans. Documentation obtained in January 2021 showed that a similar number of vacant units remained. In his e-mail, the representative says there are always empty units “for a number of reasons, including scheduled redevelopment.”

Right now the agency takes an average of 480 days to prepare one unit for lease. Cathleen O’Brien, a housing advocate at Access Living, an organization dedicated to disability rights, is working on the Public Health and Housing Ordinance. Under this ordinance, landlords would have to prepare units within 60 to 90 days and the CHA would have to ensure that 97 percent of its units are always filled.

O’Brien hopes to lift the ban on rent control, too. She says chronically unemployed and underemployed disabled people are often forced to leave when landlords raise rent prices for costly accessible properties. With a rent control ban in place and without debt forgiveness, tenants may be eligible for emergency rental assistance, but landlords can sometimes turn away those funds in favor of new tenants who do not require assistance, O’Brien says. And many tenants owed months of rent when the eviction moratorium expired in October. “That is going to cause a housing crisis like we’ve never seen in this country and in this state,” she says.

Data from 2020 pointed to roughly 5,390 homeless people in Chicago, and many more uncounted squatting in basements, sleeping on couches, or doubled up in overcrowded homes.

Thousands have survived one pandemic winter, only to now face another, still waiting for shelters to have spaces for them, to hear their names called for a public housing unit. Most could make a compelling case for prioritization in housing—citing disability, vision or mobility impairments, substance use disorders, and attempts to self-medicate that leave them susceptible to dopesickness and overdose.

Brittany King, who has used a wheelchair to get around after having a stroke in her second year of college, was added to a housing waiting list in 2009. Ten years later, she got a unit.

Then, she had to leave it behind because she did not feel safe living with an ex-partner there. She returned to her family’s house with a two-year-old in tow. It was crowded. She hopes to move out, live on her own, spend more time with her daughter, start a baking business, even date. She’s tried to move out with vouchers from the CHA. She should be able to use a voucher to rent wheelchair-accessible housing, paying a small portion and letting the agency cover the rest. But her vouchers expired as she searched for a landlord who might accept her. Landlords discriminate against voucher holders, turning them down and demanding proof of income three times the rent. It’s illegal in Cook County, but it still happens.

Across the city, Bonnie Contreras and her partner Phillipe have been waiting for housing for years, too. They are squatting in the basement of a friend’s home in Avondale, at the bottom of a steep and narrow flight of stairs. A car accident left Bonnie with severe injuries years ago. She uses a wheelchair, and the stairs are like a trap. Still, this is the most comfortable place they’ve stayed in a while. There’s a refrigerator, a small table, two chairs, an old couch, and a bare mattress on the floor.

In December 2020, I descend a narrow flight of stairs, holding the railing tightly on my way down. I find Bonnie sitting in a chair pressed up against a dull green wall. She has bright, wistful eyes, freckles across her cheeks, and long hair that’s braided and tied in a low ponytail. She speaks urgently about mental illness, homelessness, about knowing a homeless veteran who froze to death. She recounts her own painful history of facing violence and abuse as a Black woman. She misses her children, who live with relatives. They are all beautiful, she says.

She has moved from her sister’s house to a women’s shelter to sleeping at bus stops. From there she went to Pacific Garden Mission on the west side, one of the largest shelters in Chicago. Staff assigned her to a top bunk bed, but she couldn’t climb onto it. Then she met Phillipe. Bonnie seems happiest when she talks about Phillipe. “He was the only one who looked at me beyond my disability,” she says. “He shows me he loves me every day.” He too had left a violent relationship. Two years ago, he invited her to join him at his encampment on Roosevelt and Des Plaines, known as Tent City. It’s one of the city’s largest encampments, with tents spread out over acres of land.

“There were so many rats,” Bonnie says. She felt like she had to sleep with one eye open. They moved from their tent, to an overcrowded house for squatters, to their friend’s basement. “I don’t care about the pandemic. All I care about is having a roof over my head that I can call my own.” She wants wheelchair-accessible housing, but she’ll crawl up the stairs if she has to.

Over on the west side, Vicente, in his late 40s and blind, is also squatting on the lower level of a housing unit. Standing straight and tall, he grasps his cane and approaches the sidewalk. A blue cloth mask covers his nose and mouth. His eyes are closed. He needs to find food and do laundry, which is especially hard because he can’t see where to place quarters into the machine slots. He moved to the states from Mexico two decades ago, hoping American doctors might restore his sight.

He slept on the Blue Line until transit officials told him he had to pay to ride the train. “They think we are garbage,” Vicente says. He’s been homeless for ten years. He wants to take English classes. What he wants more than anything, though, is a house.

Overtis Houston Sr., Black and diabetic and in his early 70s, contracted coronavirus during an outbreak in a shelter. He uses a wheelchair. He was sent to a COVID-19 isolation facility on the west side, run by A Safe Haven and Rush University Medical Center. It’s open to anyone who tests positive for coronavirus but has nowhere to isolate safely. Houston recovered, but he can’t go back to the shelter, because it isn’t wheelchair accessible. At Franciscan shelter, he says his shower had no rails to hold onto. “I was in wet clothes for two or three days. I keep telling them I need something to put on,” he says. “They just ignore me.”

The three shelters that make up Franciscan Outreach host about 4,000 people every year, and 100 to 200 of those people are disabled. “There just hasn’t been a lot of funding from the city,” says Richard Ducatenzeiler, the executive director. “Or from anywhere, when it comes to helping with the infrastructure improvements that need to happen, especially around ADA, or making sure we’re staying up to code in health, safety, and fire.” 

“There’s no elevator, obviously,” he adds.

At A Safe Haven’s COVID-19 facility, Overtis takes his insulin and sees a mental health professional. “They have everything you need,” he says. “You’re not starving. They feed you. They even leave out snacks. I get along with everyone, especially the staff. I get along with them, and they get along with me. You get hot meals. Plus, it’s clean.”

He’s friendly with nurses Terry Gallagher, Jaylen Perez, and Angela Moss, who is also an assistant dean at the Rush University College of Nursing. They work in 12-hour shifts. When I visited the facility in late December 2020, Perez walked past rows and rows of cots separated by partitions, pointing out the medication room, private rooms, medical equipment, a cafeteria with a television. Residents gather there for meals and therapy.

“There are people who work nine-to-five jobs, and then after work go and sleep at a homeless shelter. There’s a blame put upon the homeless that they do not deserve. There is no difference between the people I take care of here, and anyone else I have in my life,” says Gallagher.

Moss says people with coronavirus have come to A Safe Haven’s facility from hospitals and shelters throughout Chicago. “We have a high incidence of mental illness and substance use disorder,” she says. “So while people are here we do intensive treatment and therapy.”

At midnight on a Wednesday in December, dozens line up on the CTA platform at Forest Park, hunched and shivering, picking up sandwiches. Some have slept on the trains. A little boy darts from one line to another, and back again. Stephan Koruba, a nurse practitioner with the Night Ministry, helps to run a Department of Public Health funded program that provides medical outreach, hats, gloves, meals, masks, and coronavirus, Hepatitis C and HIV testing here. Over the background din of coughing and shuffling, Koruba tells me drug overdoses increased during the pandemic. The Night Ministry spends two nights a week at the Forest Park Blue Line stop, and another two nights at the 95th Street Red Line stop.

“When people have no reliable housing, they are at risk for pretty much every chronic health condition,” Dr. Steven Rothschild, the chair of family medicine at Rush Medical College, says. That includes diabetes, hypertension, frostbite, substance use disorder, and mental illness. “There is no single solution. Well, there is a single solution. It’s called housing.”

Ryan Spangler works with Heartland Alliance Health, helping homeless people connect with encampment communities, navigate housing waiting lists, and get stimulus checks and birth certificates. He too has heard grumbling about 1,250 vacant units. “What CHA is saying may be true: they’re not ready, and folks have to go through a specific application process. It’s an example of what’s wrong with the system, and how inefficient it is.”

Nicole Bahena is the vice president of community partnerships at All Chicago Making Homelessness History. She says the city has invested in All Chicago’s Expedited Housing Initiative, which aims to house 2,550 people over 18 months. They draw from the Coordinated Entry System housing list, where disabled people or older individuals may be given priority. “It’s like 10,000 people long and we don’t have enough resources,” Bahena says.

So far, the organization has found landlords hold units open when they get large financial incentives. All Chicago provides select homeless people with apartments, up to two years of rental assistance, and case managers who will prepare them for independent living.

Matthew House is a nonprofit participating in the Expedited Housing Initiative, matching some of the people they serve with housing, furniture, and case management. The south-side building is inviting, with cheerful Christmas decorations, showers for guests, a kitchen, and a dining room where people gather around small circular tables to eat. For Christmas, founding CEO Sanja Rickette Stinson cooks 12 turkeys, 60 potato pies, four large hams, and a peach cobbler.

When I visit, Sherri Allen-Reeves, director of case management at Matthew House, is busy, rapidly placing 50 people into apartments. “I’ve seen grown men cry, because they got housing,” she tells me. “They don’t even have a key yet. They’ve just looked at where they could live, and they cry.”

Nat is 20, studying to be a sterile processing technician. We meet on a video chat and she sits squarely within her computer’s frame. A Mexican flag with an eagle in the center and rainbow stripes around the edges hangs on the wall behind her, celebrating her Hispanic heritage and LGBTQ+ pride. “This is a retractor for the arteries,” she tells me eagerly, describing what she studies in her college classes. “That one’s a retractor for the fallopian tubes.” Her classmates and coworkers don’t know she’s homeless. She doesn’t want anyone to worry.

Nat was 16 the first time her mom kicked her out of the house. She says her mom drove her to an adult shelter that couldn’t take her, and from there she walked for hours to a friend’s house. At the start of the pandemic, she found the STEPS Transitional Living Program at the Night Ministry. She has her own room and a case manager who will save 40 percent of her income for two years. By then she should have enough to move into her own apartment. She’s a cabin cleaner at the airport. For a few shifts each week while school is in session, from 8 PM to 4 AM, she cleans the seats, windows, bathrooms, and galleys in the planes.

She thinks about the future and smiles. “I just want to feel good about myself and happy,” she says. “I want to feel completed. When I have my own apartment, and I’m working, I want to feel satisfied, and happy, and great.”

Thomas Huggett is a family doctor with Lawndale Christian Health Center. He wears round, thin-framed glasses and a brown newsboy cap. A mask and a protective shield cover half his face, but as he greets his patients he is so clearly smiling at them; the wrinkles in his forehead and around his eyes deepen, and his voice rises with warmth. One woman enters the little room in the back of the Franciscan Outreach shelter where he has set up for the evening, steering her wheelchair through a narrow entryway. They both reach out their arms, six feet apart, and say together: “Hug, hug, hug!” 

“You gave my chart a hug,” the patient says.

“I gave your chart a big old hug,” says Huggett.

He reaches into his travel case filled with common prescriptions, looking for what his patient needs. With Medicaid, patients are restricted to CVS pharmacy locations. The closest one is two and a half miles away from the Franciscan shelter. Many shelter residents can’t pick up prescriptions, even if they’re covered. They can’t afford transportation and it’s too far to walk. He has Naloxone to treat overdoses, too.

“Are you still hearing voices?” Huggett asks his next patient.

“They went away,” the patient says. Huggett reviews medications and helps him find a pair of glasses, which he also has in his bag.

“They fog up,” the patient says, trying on a pair.

“Yes,” Huggett says, “because of the mask! Try to pinch the mask over your nose—then it doesn’t fog up so much.”

Between patients, Huggett walks through the shelter, with its rows and rows of cots. He goes into the kitchen—a dark room where people crowd around a high, metal table. Guests eat in shifts, standing up.

Lawndale Christian Health Center began vaccinating shelter guests and staff in January 2021. Within the first couple of months, they administered over 2,010 doses. Chicago Heartland Alliance Health administered more than 5,600 doses in two months. Chicago was “far ahead of most cities in the country in prioritizing and immunizing people experiencing homelessness against coronavirus,” says Huggett.

Providers use an anti-racist approach to discuss the vaccine with shelter guests. Huggett says this means acknowledging guests’ experiences with racism and discrimination in health care, asking them for permission to share scientific information and emphasizing the importance of finding vaccine providers who share the same racial background as recipients. It means helping guests develop a plan to get the vaccine, and making sure they know they are always welcome to return, if they show up to a vaccine appointment and decide they aren’t ready yet. 

Huggett remembers administering the vaccine to a guest along with two other injections—one for opioid use disorder and another for a mental health condition. “He was happy to receive all three shots,” Huggett says. In 2022, as the Omicron variant surges, he worries about what happens when government funding to help the homeless during the pandemic runs out, what happens if people lose housing and return to the streets. Those in search of housing, who go back and forth between jails, hospitals, and shelters, may be stuck. 

Arthur has avoided shelters, given insect infestations and coronavirus spread. He lays on the sidewalk outside of the Cultural Center in downtown Chicago, with empty junk food wrappers scattered around him, trash bags, and a cardboard sign that reads: NEED GREYHOUND BUS TICKET. Courtesy Sarah Gelbard

Arthur is burrowed into his sleeping bag, outside of the Cultural Center in downtown Chicago. He feels safer on the street than at the shelter that suffered outbreaks of coronavirus and bedbugs. He has a cardboard sign asking for money to help him get to Pensacola, Florida. “My sister said if I could make it out here, I got a place to stay.”

He’s tall and thin, his bones jutting out. He’s hungry and clutches half of a floppy peanut butter and jelly sandwich. “They don’t give out nothing!” he says. “A dollar here, a dollar there, nothing.”

Older individuals who have been homeless for many years are given priority on housing waiting lists, but it’s a long process. Almost seven miles away from Arthur’s spot on the sidewalk, Carlos Rivera, 55, has been homeless for five years. He signed up on the waiting list in December 2020. He lives in a small green tent in the Avondale encampment on the north side, but he spends much of his time in his friend Ricky’s small wooden shelter that he helped build. It’s cluttered and colorful, with a TV, extra masks on the floor, and multicolored cloth strewn up against the wall. Just two weeks after receiving housing, Ricky was shot and killed. Carlos is taking care of Ricky’s cats. 

Before the pandemic, Carlos squatted in a building with the owner’s permission. The owner was afraid Carlos would contract coronavirus from others in the homeless community and spread it around the building, so he told Carlos to leave. He’s looking for work but “it’s ten times harder now than it was before the pandemic. And I’m not a young cat anymore.” Homelessness, he says, “is so intense, so overwhelming that words cannot even describe it. It’s sadness, anger, it’s everything at once.”

Back on Lower Wacker, Drew is still there, still panhandling to get by. A volunteer who helps homeless pets paid one month’s rent for Stacey and Greg so they could shield their cat from the cold. They have long since returned to living outside in tents and panhandling too. Stacey writes in her spare time. 

Greg reads his poem, “Thoughts of a Lonely Man,” aloud from his notebook. The cat he shares with his girlfriend, Stacey, perches on his knee. Courtesy Sarah Gelbard

Greg hasn’t written in a while, but there is one poem he is most proud of. He reads it aloud to me, his voice deep and gravelly, echoing across concrete, rising above the rumbling of trucks and cars behind him. “‘Thoughts of a Lonely Man’ by the Venerable D.S. Gregory,” he says, and then he takes a breath and continues:

Walking these crowded streets
Feeling like I’m always in court
Being judged constantly
It’s become a new sport
Mentally beaten down
Physically trampled
Kept pinned to the ground
A snail slithering around
To feel this pain
Couldn’t be grasped
My shoes you couldn’t fit
Or even want to be seen in public with
It’s amazing
To walk through society
Not a soul ever noticing
You’re just a haze
To be avoided like the plague
And to acknowledge my presence
Would mean you’re infected
Close to my shoes you would be stepping
And to think these people assume
I am a dead man walking
I laugh because in the end
Those who judge and look down
Are the ones in life
That are truly grasping
Fighting each other for a life
That’s not everlasting.


Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.

*Some sources in this story requested that their last names not be shared, to protect their safety or privacy.

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