THE VIADUCTS – Where Chicago’s Homeless Hide in Plain Sight
by Sandra Ramsey, Director of Cornerstone Community Outreach Shelters
The following entry was journaled two years ago by CCO’s Sandy Ramsey; the questions it raises are if anything more pertinent now than they were then.
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday – Aug 23, 24, 25, 2010
The city was engaging in a campaign to find the most vulnerable and needy homeless individuals. Beginning at 4:30 a.m. medical and social service teams would go forth to viaducts, loading docks, and the park, seeking those who could not or would not come into shelters. The needy would be interviewed, assessed, and placed on a top priority housing list.
It was 3:40 a.m. when I set out from our house for the two block walk to the café where everyone was scheduled to meet. One corner, one full block, then, the final quarter of a block to my destination. A veteran of the neighborhood for twenty years, I was still nervous about my trip at this hour of the morning. I prayed that God would send an angel to watch over me as I started out under a full moon.
Ahead of me I saw a big man standing on the corner across the street by McDonald’s. The man ignored me as I rounded the corner. So far so good I thought to myself. Suddenly from out of the quiet night I heard a loud familiar voice. “What are YOU doing out here?” I turned around to see Shawn perched like a gargoyle on the newspaper box next to the man on the corner. I hadn’t seen him in the shadows. I told him I was going to do homeless surveys and we waved to each other. I continued on, laughing about the angel God had provided for me. Shawn is one of our mentally ill outreach clients and views me as a mother figure. I knew he would make it his job to watch me until I disappeared onto the next block. If I did end up in trouble, all I had to do was yell and he would come running.
At the café we were divided up into teams to begin canvassing where the truly homeless were known to sleep. I ended up with the Heartland Health Outreach team and their medical van.
Our first stop was the loading dock, a destination I had really hoped would not be overlooked. The loading dock is a long cement ledge at the back of a store where trucks back up to drop off or pick up deliveries. It’s an out of the way place where on this night there were about ten people, both men and women, sound asleep until we pulled up with our headlights. We set to work in the early dawn, waking and interviewing all who would hear us. Most people responded positively especially when we offered coffee and muffins on the spot, along with a McDonald’s gift card.
Some of us interviewed the people while the medical teams took blood pressures and answered medical questions. I knew most of the people on the dock and would call them by name when they were rousted from their beds. This gave our whole team a quicker “in” with the interviews we were trying to conduct. I got to Alice, who has been arrested 300 times for prostitution and drugs. I don’t know her real well, but know we have housed her in our single women’s program several times. Each time she has to be asked to leave for causing disturbances that upset the other women. Maybe something better will happen for her if we can get her on this list.
I move to the next man and woman. They are a couple. Laura cannot get her husband awake even though she tries really hard when she learns he can get a McDonald’s card too. No luck with him, but she happily answers questions and munches on muffins. I ask her about the woman lying next to them. “No,” she says quietly, you will not be able to wake her up right now.” I take the hint that she is deeply under the influence of something and let her be.
We finished interviewing everyone, load up and move on to the park. We park the van while it is still dark. We find a couple sleeping on the top of Montrose Hill. What a nice place to sleep I think, out under the stars and the full moon. Then I envision what it’s like to not have another choice, to not have a bed in an enclosed area somewhere to sleep in. We interview them and move on to another area.
We come upon two couples sleeping a few yards from each other in the soccer field strewn with beer bottles. We interview a young woman from one of the couples. She is only 21 and says she is from the suburbs up north. I know her boyfriend, who does not wake up, and know he is a second generation raised-in-the-street alcoholic whose mother is also an alcoholic. Recently we had tried to help him do an intervention with his mother who had gotten really bad. It lasted a few days. Now here he was with a 21-year old suburban girl. I wonder how she ended up so far from home.
I ask her about a man and a woman sleeping a short distance away and she said, “They say that couple is crazy.” The medical team attempts to wake them but to no avail so we move on.
We drive the van to a busy viaduct where cars and trucks roar overhead. We park and begin looking up the slanting walls to the eaves of the viaduct right under the expressway for any human beings. I climb up the steep wall and at the top, realize I will have to slip through a small gap in the fence just like those who might live up there. I get through the fence and begin scanning the eaves. There are signs of life: couch cushions, blankets, food wrappers –no people on this night. But the roar and vibration of the expressway a foot above our heads, let’s us know we are not alone. Finally, we see one person lying on a mattress, but he waves us on and doesn’t want to talk. He seems like he’s in another world and doesn’t want to be bothered. We move on toward the end of the eaves but do not find anyone else. We make our descent and find our team members busy helping people they found below.
I jump in to interview the men living at the sidewalk level, in the cement porticoes that hold up the bridge. Each portico holds a different man with his belongings. We go from space to space interviewing, offering food, and taking blood pressure. One man looks like my father-in-law. “Can I sit on your blanket?” I ask him as I get ready to interview him. He politely makes room for me in his space. Another man, Jerry, had already heard about the campaign we were doing and was going to go find someone to interview him if no one came by.
I meet Roy Fox, a tiny, wiry little man. At first my questions about what we’re doing are all met with “Nope, nope, nope.” But then he consents to do the interview. After we have finished and I have wandered over to the next man, Roy calls me back by my name. I had a hard time remembering the nurse’s name I was with. He warms up to me and offers info on his Hispanic neighbor living in the next portico: He is wounded. He has an ice cream cart and he got beat up. He speaks little English. I thank Ray who walks with me over to the man who shows us the wounds on his shins and his swollen jaw from being punched. No one else knows his suffering in the portico under the bridge but we are let in.
On one end of the overpass, on the sidewalk against the cement wall a shrine has grown where someone saw the face of Mother Mary in a water stain on the cement. Lit candles and fake flowers adorn the site along with prayers scratched on the wall. A sign says to please be careful with the candles as a one got too close to Mary’s face and now black smoke covered most of where she was. Still in these early morning hours, in the yellow glow of street lights, a car pulls up to the shrine. A man gets out, crosses himself, and spends a few minutes in prayer, before jumping back in the car and taking off. This simple roadside chapel works for him.
We move on to the next viaduct. We see people living up in the eaves and begin to scale the wall to reach them. These eaves can only be entered by slithering under another chain link fence. Declaring that I am too old and too big to do this, I interview the first man through the fence, after he crawls from his eave.
Andre tells me of his schizophrenia, as well as a list of other medical ailments. I feel bad for him because he says he wants help but doesn’t know where to start. He is truly confused. I cannot imagine what he has gone through that has brought him to a crawlspace tucked under an expressway. We give him phone numbers and referrals and I try to hope with him that something will come of this. He crawls under the fence out to us, along with his eave mate, Dave, who shows the nurse his swollen foot. He jumped from somewhere and landed wrong on a brick. He gratefully accepts pain medication and we refer him to the neighborhood clinic for follow-up.
I see bushes that ring one end of the expressway viaduct. I think to myself, “If I was homeless this would be a perfect place to sleep.” Sure enough, up in the corner tucked right under the eave of the highway, there are two feet sticking out. I call the nurses who interview the guy while I wander around. I come upon another grove of trees and bushes that edge a couple of dead end streets. I catch a glimpse of a pillow on a blanket perfectly placed up in the little section of woods. No one is there now, but someone has slept there. It reminds me of seeing beds in the woods where deer have been resting, only these are humans.
Our three day outreach comes to an end and we all return to our homes. Everyone on the docks, and Roy Fox and his friends living in the porticos under the viaducts, are all etched in my memory.
We have crept into the underbelly of society and found they are still human, now what?