We all see Chicago’s homeless, be it by the side of the Eisenhower exits, on State Street, or at CTA stops every day. But rarely do we stop to greet them, to acknowledge their humanity, to see them as individuals and meet their needs clearly. Sadly, we have come to see homelessness as simply a part of American cities, no different than the great shopping and ethnic diversity they offer. We have come to accept that homelessness will always be a problem that faces urban areas like crime and unequal access to green space.
One of the resources I keep going back to is the “Facts behind the Faces” report by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless to keep reminding myself just how many factors affect, create, and sustain the conditions for modern homelessness. It isn’t just people who are down-on-their-luck or people struggling with addiction. According to the aforementioned fact sheet “a study led by Chicago Coalition for the Homeless show that 73,656 men, women, youths, and children were homeless in Chicago during fiscal year 2006,” (source). There are larger and systemic issues that have created and sustained homelessness as part of American life.
We can’t simply buy more cots for shelter beds, nor can we just throw up more affordable housing units. Don’t get me wrong, I do think that we do need to do those things to end homelessness now. There are “65,184 households on public housing wait lists,” (source). However, we also need to address its root causes to end chronic homelessness and prevent it into the future. Some of these root causes include: violence in the home, struggles with addiction, access to affordable health care and mental health care, and access to living wage jobs
This can seem overwhelming. I know it does sometimes for me, despite the fact that I get to do work that I know meets my clients’ physical needs.
The CareTeam has a program, called (g)love that gathers volunteers together to pack bags, which we call CarePacks. These CarePacks contain a hat, a pair of gloves and a pair of socks, as well as food and personal care items like shampoo, soap and hand sanitizer. What is radical about (g)love is that the volunteers are encouraged to walk up to chilly Chicagoans and give them something to warm themselves, physically, and spiritually. By creating connections we are able to transcend those boundaries that so often separate us from those less fortunate.
What’s even more radical? We don’t care if you are homeless. You don’t have a hat? We want you to have one. We want to recognize that there are those society has forgotten that goes beyond the truly unhoused, including: the habitually underemployed, those who live in subsided housing, those who do receive aid but it simply isn’t enough to provide extras like hats and gloves. We want to recognize that there are things we can all do now to meet the physical needs of the homeless and that there are things we can do to ensure no one has to be without a home again.
Sarah Harbaugh is a Program Coordinator at the MGR Foundation, mgrf.org. She coordinates the CareTeam, dedicated to alleviating the effects of poverty through engaged and innovative service. and WillPower, teen pregnancy prevention program that utilizes peer theatre, supported by sexual education and parental involvement, to encourage students to think critically about their sexual and reproductive choices.