Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Lower Wacker Homeless Coming to Uptown

By Mark Brown
The homeless men and women lounging on their bedrolls at mid-morning on Lower Lower Wacker Drive, two levels below the street entrance to the Hyatt Regency Hotel, cast a wary eye on the strangers getting out of a blue minivan.
Then some of them spot Chris Robinson, no stranger at all, and the sidewalk springs to life as they rush to greet him.
"Whatever you can do, man," pleads Jeffery Pams, 45, who pulls down his shirt collar to remind Robinson of the heart defibrillator implanted in his chest.
'We feel left out'"Don't forget about us. We feel left out," says Sherill Linear, 47, a former CHA resident.
"You're on the radar," Robinson responds diplomatically.
Robinson has a job that a lot of people might think impossible.
He's supposed to pluck homeless people off the street and put them directly into their own apartments -- then make sure they succeed so that they don't end up right back out here.
The obstacles are great. These are, after all, individuals who have chosen to avoid even the limited structure of a homeless shelter to sleep on the streets. Many have been out here for years.
But Robinson will tell you that it can work, and that, in fact, it already is working, and the enthusiastic response he is receiving this morning tells you he at least has convinced the homeless people he is for real.
Now the question is whether we'll back him up with the necessary resources to keep it real.
Robinson is a case worker for Heartland Health Outreach, an Uptown-based social service provider with a grant from the city to tackle the homeless situation on Lower Wacker, one of Chicago's most persistent sanctuaries for those without a real roof over their head.
This particular homeless community of about 40 people is located one full street level beneath the stretch of Lower Wacker where Chicagoans once were accustomed to the sight of homeless people sleeping in cardboard shelters on loading docks. That was before the city ran everyone off and then sealed the area with gates and fences.
But neither the homeless nor homelessness was so easily eradicated. Lower Lower Wacker, where they are now ensconced, is more remote and inaccessible, familiar mostly to the people who live or work in the area east of Michigan Avenue, south of the river and north of Randolph -- or occasionally visited by those who get lost while navigating.
One of the first things you notice when you try to hold a conversation down here is the noise. Although there isn't much traffic, what little there is combines with the vibrations from busy Columbus Drive overhead to create a dull roar.
"You get used to it," says Darryl Hill, who used to have a "cozy" sleeping spot beneath the House of Blues before the police ran him off at the commencement of the construction of Trump Tower.
Just the same, they must have had a hard time hearing the soft-spoken Robinson when he first started coming down here in the spring, trying to win the confidence of the homeless with cups of coffee or breakfasts at the fast-food restaurants above. At first, they didn't trust him and let him hear about it.
"I even cursed the man out," Linear remembers. "We don't want to hear all that mess, all those promises again."
But gradually, Robinson found two willing to give it a try -- and just as important, an Uptown landlord willing to accept them as tenants. When they reported to their friends that Robinson had kept his promises, eight more followed.
These 10 have been in their apartments only a few months, so the project still has a ways to go to prove itself.
But Robinson says the former Wacker homeless are quickly reacclimating to society. Some have already found jobs, he says. They meet weekly as a support group to discuss their progress.
Now he's eager for funding to be approved so that he can bring another group off the street.
The project is part of the city's Streets to Homes Initiative, a new approach that aims to steer homeless people to permanent housing with support services rather than into temporary shelters. It's a sound idea, as long as nobody uses it as an excuse to eliminate shelter beds while homelessness is on the rise.
Many of those sleeping on the sidewalk Tuesday morning weren't even living down here when Robinson took out the others.
"I really appreciate what the city is doing," says Robinson, who used to be homeless himself. "Our job is to keep going and to never give up."


  1. Why don't they spread them out to all neighborhoods not just Uptown.

    I wish I would have known when I bought in Uptown this was the projects.

  2. Regardless of where they get situated, this seems like a GOOD thing. This is maybe the most feel good story about the homeless that I've read.

  3. Some of these people do not want the help. That is the problem. I can tell you of at least 1 person there who has family that live only 20 minutes away. She also has a friend that would help. When you offer to give someone a place to stay so they can get on their feet you would think they would take it. The mentally ill cannot be helped unless they want it. If someone in charge of this project would like to know who I am talking about please leave a response. It seems that I am the only one who cares if this person lives, not even her family.

  4. They are not coming to Uptown to be homeless. They are coming to Uptown as tenants. That is a good thing.

  5. No, it's not. With the vast array of social services available out there, if they were able to be tenants somewhere, they already would be instead of being encamped on Lower Wacker...

  6. Most of them have major problems that are not going to be solved by sticking them in apartments. Alcohol, drugs, mental illness. And then you have those that simply want to stay on the streets. Time to create programs that help like this and then make it illegal to sleep on the streets. Also stop feeding them. If these stupid groups would quit feeding the homeless then they would seek help or find a way to make money like getting a job.