June 2, 2006

Homelessness is not a condition all can easily avoid in America

Mike is 40 years old. He has a gentle, intelligent face; strong, capable hands; he speaks very softly. He usually won’t look you straight in the eye. He looks just a little away when he talks to you.

Mike’s been living in Hyde Park for six years. He’s spent lots of nights in the gazebo on 55th Street; now and again he’s put up at a shelter downtown. In winter the gazebo must be freezing, and then even the shelter’s no shelter: people fight there, get drunk, steal, beat you up. You have to pay to get there, and you have to pay to get in. And you’re out on the street again the next morning.

Mike’s one of Hyde Park’s homeless. He grew up on the South Side, in Jackson Park. He was an only child. His father died in ’90; his mother passed away in a nursing home three months ago. When he mentions his father, his voice sometimes catches. Even after he became homeless he was still in touch with his mother “on and off.”

All in all, it seems that Mike loved his parents; that things were all right for him growing up, that the reason he’s homeless is anything but clear, and that the fact he’s homeless has been anything but inevitable.

And, from what Mike says, it seems like things really were all right, at least for a while. But then things changed. He’d been living in Hyde Park, working in sales and customer service for Market U.S.A. when, in ’93, he contracted H.I.V. In November of that year, he left Hyde Park, moving into subsidized housing in Oak Park. He worked for another eight years, struggling to pay the medical bills and to keep working despite how sick he was. In 2001 he got laid off for missing too many hours of work. Since then, he’s been on the street.

At a talk last week at the U of C sponsored by the organization The Giving Tree, Sammy, a spokesperson for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, mentioned that 30 percent of Chicago’s homeless have a drug addiction. This leaves 70 percent. Some of these might be women who’ve run away (with or without their children) from abusive domestic relationships; some might be men and women with severe psychological problems—post-traumatic stress disorder, psychosis or schizophrenia.

Mike has no drug addiction; he contracted H.I.V. by sex, not a needle. He’s neither psychotic nor schizophrenic. In a word, he was never “destined” to become homeless—not any more than anybody else—but he’s homeless. He got sick; he got laid off; he couldn’t pay the bills. It can happen to anyone.

Eight months ago Mike found out he has diabetes. For the past six weeks, he’s been trying to get a place for himself in a transitional living center, Hull House, in Evanston. This would be a big step. But the application process has been tough. He’s had to supply detailed medical records on demand—and every trip to the Cook County Hospital costs him. Most of the time now, he can’t pay for his medication, and so he’s sick. Finding a place to go to the bathroom when you’re living on the street is bad enough; finding a place to throw up is even worse.

When Mike sees you on the street and says, “Can you help me out,” or asks you for some money—to get the medication, he’ll often say—he means it. He’ll be straight with you; he’s had to be more straight with himself than most of us have. If things have been bad with him, you’ll see it in his face, and he’ll tell it. He’s not trying to get money to feed a drug habit; he’s trying to get money to get to Evanston, to get another chance. No one doesn’t deserve another chance, especially if they’re brave enough to really want it. For Mike and those homeless in Hyde Park who want it, we ought to keep our eyes, ears, and hearts open. It can happen to anyone.