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Monday, September 17, 2012

Homeless in Chicago

By: Luz Garcia

A couple days ago as I was driving home, I stopped at a red light by the bridge on Cicero Avenue near Pershing; if you aren’t familiar with that area, let’s just say there are many people in need. So as expected, there was a homeless man going from car to car begging for money. He began to approach me. For a second I thought I’d open the little ashtray in my car, where instead of keeping ashes I keep change (usually for toll way purposes,) get a handful of cash and drop it in his cup. I retracted. When he got to my window I could see him talking but I couldn’t hear what he was saying because of the music blaring out of my speakers. Assuming I knew what he was asking for I guiltily shook my head from side to side. I turned from him and looked straight on hoping the light would turn green. I didn’t want to look him in the eye.  After realizing he wasn’t going anywhere I hesitantly turned back to see the man still standing by my window pleading; I looked him in the eye and said, “I have no cash.” A lie. Defeated I saw him mouth “ok” but I could tell he didn’t believe me… or could I? Was it just my guilt? I continued to observe him as he walked away through my side mirror, I was sure that the car behind me was also going to say no.

 Then, something happened.

The light turned green and a truck from the oncoming traffic lane dashed past me before anyone in my lane could move, sounded its horn and stopped right next to the man, then I saw the person in the truck reach out and hand the man a bag and cup from McDonald’s. Alas, my faith in humankind was restored; that same faith that I had just faulted on.

The whole drive home I tried to justify my action or lack thereof. Why did I not give him some of the change I had? Was it because of the judgment I had already subconsciously passed? Was it because I knew I was eventually going to need the change next time I was at a toll? Was it really because I was scared of opening my window to a stranger at 2 a.m.? Was it because I’m currently unemployed and can’t really spare any change? Is that true, can’t I spare any change?  Then a thought… could that have been an angel in disguise testing me, or even, God? 

Ok, I was way in over my head. I wondered why this particular situation was affecting me. This wasn’t the first time I said “no” to a beggar. But why was I thinking about this situation so much? What had just happened inspired me to analyze homelessness in Chicago and ultimately lead me to write this entry.  

According to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless an analysis from July 2012 shows that there was an increase of 105,338 homeless Chicagoans just in the 2011-2012 school year, that’s as a whole including families with children and youths. Single adults make up 41% of that total with 43,161 men and women. The racial demographics based on a point-in-time count from 2007 look like this – 75% African American, 16% White, 6% Latino, and 3% is composed of other races.

While reading through statistics and seeing such high numbers during my research, I just couldn’t understand how someone in America, the land of opportunity, can be homeless. I soon discovered there are many reasons. Some of the contributing factors include home foreclosures, decline in public assistance, lack of affordable housing, addiction and mental illnesses, and of course the most obvious, poverty.

Organizations like the Chicago Coalition for the homeless as well as the National Coalition for the Homeless strive to help aid the homeless here at home, and at a national level. You can visit their sites to inform yourself on what these type of organizations are doing in their efforts to end homelessness by clicking here, and what you can do to help by clicking here.

In a world where financial stability is everyone’s main priority, where no one lives for free, in which the job market is dwindling, and healthcare is becoming less affordable, one can’t really afford to say “That can’t ever happen to me,” homelessness can be anyone’s reality.

Although at that moment my moral conflictions prevailed, I look back at that episode under the bridge on Cicero Avenue and although it may or may not have been the best choice, I don’t regret my decision. In retrospect, I’m glad that I made the choice not to give and that it caused me that much of an impact after the fact, for it compelled me to inform myself on the issue. Knowledge truly is power. Sometimes by trying to understand another person’s conviction you can learn a lot about yourself and the world too. I’m not sure how my next encounter with a homeless person will go but I believe I will set any judgment I have aside and even if it’s a small donation, I know that I will be making a conscious, well-informed decision.

To get more information on homelessness in Chicago, you can also visit The Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness website.