Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Cold Streets

         After today’s clinical intervention class on vertical and horizontal integration, I’ve realized that I need to begin putting my experiences into words so as to better process them.  While I could easily verbalize these experiences, I would either be talking a great deal to myself or overloading my roommates with feelings.  We don’t do feelings.  So here I am, back to blogging.  Yes, I do recognize that this medium of expression may enable my reluctance to talk about real stuff and allow me to decrease feelings of vulnerability while processing my thoughts and emotions.  Baby steps y’all, baby steps.   

On January 22, I took part in Chicago’s Point in Time homeless count; from 9pm to 1am I drove around the West Side, tallying those who appeared to be homeless and asking them to complete a short survey.  In conjunction with volunteers conducting a shelter count that same evening, we attempted to identify and document the entire homeless population of Chicago, noting various demographic characteristics and attempting to get a good sample of the population to give more in-depth information about their current situation.  It’s a massive undertaking, one that ever single city receiving Federal dollars for homelessness intervention has to complete.  Thankfully, the weather outside was bad enough (sub-zero temps with wind chill) so that most of the homeless went to shelters, warming centers, or other buildings that offered some barrier against the cold.  This made the count very easy and probably more accurate.  With that being said, there were still people on the streets that night.  After four hours of driving around, we tallied eight homeless individuals—that’s eight people who had nowhere else to go, eight people who had to stay outside in conditions that could very well kill them. 

The streets of Chicago look very different at night, even on a night that keeps most people indoors.  Our survey area was in West Chicago, in areas that one of the workers in my van (Ned, a native of the area) called “Dope City.”  Although we didn’t see many homeless individuals out and about that night, we did see lots of young men hanging out on street corners.  A volunteer in our van asked if we should ask these young men to complete the survey.  My supervisor, who was driving, said that there was no need; they obviously weren’t homeless.  I could tell that he was right, and I was surprised to discover that over the course of my internship I had gained knowledge of the subtle signs of homelessness: quality of clothing, how many homeless people carry themselves, whether or not they have bags with them, how swollen their ankles are, etc.  These young men carried themselves confidently, had nice clothes and boots and were purposefully staying in one spot, even though the wind was blowing and they could have easily ducked into a gas station or doorway.  I was surprised at how many of these young men, who work in the drug trade, had braved the elements.  “This is nothing, there’s hardly anyone here,” Ned told me.  “You know it’s cold when the drug dealers aren’t out.” 

It seems to me that the City of Chicago, both the government and the public, have written off certain people and neighborhoods.  Here we were, counting all the homeless in the city, and no one was counting the young people in the drug trade.  These individuals may not be homeless now, but chances are they will be in 10 to 15 years.  They will probably get arrested, serve time, and then not be able to find a job once they are released from prison because of their ex-offender status.  Without income, they won’t be able to afford basic necessities.  This is the story I hear all the time from the middle-aged men who come to us for services.  Once they’re homeless, the city is willing to find them shelter, get them into job-training programs, fund substance abuse interventions, etc.  If the city were to invest in interventions that could prevent this pattern, we would probably find significantly fewer homeless men on the street in the next 10 years.  When I look at the work the Salvation Army does with the homeless, I see a lack in preventative services.  We help clients who are homeless or who are in immediate danger of becoming homeless; it’s a requirement for many of our programs.  The Salvation Army does not reach out to the young people who are at risk for becoming homeless in their adult lives; they do not offer workforce development, tutoring, life-skills training for youth and young adults.   Do people have to be naked, hungry, or sick before we clothe, feed, and comfort them?

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