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Home Is Where the Heat Is 

One Night's Shelter

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Every night at nine o'clock they come shuffling into the little church courtyard for a meal and a flop.

A fine, powdery snow has been falling since early this evening, and it's rising in drifts against the yard's wandering fence posts and catching in the bare branches of shrubs. The snow slowly obliterates the concrete walk that winds from the missing gate to the steps descending to a black metal door, locked tight beneath a glaring bare bulb. Another set of steps--a fire escape--rises against the church's stone wall to another door. In the shelter of the fire escape lie two heaps of old clothes beside two bundles--only fitful snores from deep within the mounds prove they aren't piles of discarded laundry.

A man in a blue cap carrying a bundle weaves jerkily down the alley and into the courtyard. He pounds on the metal door and listens, then takes the snow shovel propped against the church wall and starts shoveling the walk.

Two others enter the yard and the man in the blue cap joins their conversation at the fence, leaning the shovel beside him.

A ragged procession of figures carrying bundles comes down the alley and through the gate. The courtyard is quickly getting crowded. Dark clusters of men stand shifting their feet. Hands in pockets, chins buried in collars, shoulders hunched, hats and hoods dusted with the falling snow.

Each new arrival adds his voice to the growing murmur.

"Are they open yet?" calls one to a group hanging around the gate.

"Ya can see we're still standin' here, can't ya?" comes a reply. "Would we be standin' here if they was open?"

"Can I get something to eat here?" asks another.

"You gotta ask inside. You can if they got room for you."

Throughout the group rises an endless chorus of "Anybody got a smoke?" which is nearly always answered by a grim shake of the head.

"Goddamn it!" a man wrapped in a dirty scarf wails despairingly, as he gazes at a precious cigarette that has fallen in the snow. He's trying to mend it with gloves on, but it falls apart in his hands.

"Goddamn it!" He flings the soggy bits down into the snow.

The man in the blue cap asks another, "You got a drink?" at which a quart bottle of Wild Irish Rose wine instantly slips from under the other's coat. The blue-capped man smiles, takes a slug, hands it back with thanks. The bottle vanishes again beneath the coat.

Near the steps one of them is rubbing his bare hands vigorously.

"Looks like you're gettin' a little cold around the fringes, my friend," says a man with a drooping mustache.

"You gotta get yourself some gloves," says an old man holding up his gloved hands.

"Naw, I don't wear gloves. Keep 'em warmer in my pockets."

"Well, you wear your gloves and you put 'em in your pockets," says the old man.

"My pockets aren't big enough for wearing gloves."

"You got the wrong coat, that's why. Look here--" the old man, still grinning, stuffs his gloved hands into his coat pockets.

"Hey, look at that," says the bare-handed man. "You got a tailor makes you special coats with big pockets?"--laughter--"Now I know what you rich people wear."

Across the yard, by the fire escape, a middle-aged man asks another, "You know of any jobs? I just want any kind of work--I don't care what it is, you know? . . . Well, if you hear of anything, let me know, will you? Thanks, thanks . . ." He moves on.

Someone is singing--a jumbled moan, it rises to a howl, falls again to a mutter. A few of the assembly glance with annoyed expressions at the singer. He's leaning against the church wall, his head thrown back, eyes closed, clutching a bottle in a crumpled paper bag. "Sittin' on the dock of the bay . . ."

"Did you shovel this walk?" a man in an army coat asks the blue-capped man.

"Yes, I did," slurs the blue-capped man, smiling. "An' I dinnit even do it for money. I jus' dinnit for us."

The man in the army jacket abruptly turns to the crowd and shouts, "All right! All right! I got an announcement to make! I got an announcement!"

The courtyard becomes quiet.

"Doug here shoveled this walk, I want you to know, all by himself! He did it for you bastards! He didn't get paid or nothing! So how about that? How about that?"

A weary cheer goes up from the crowd and the man in the army coat raises Doug's arm above his head like a referee raising the arm of a prizefighter. Doug laughs and nods, acknowledging the applause.

"Than' you! Than' you! I jus'--I jus' wanned y'all t'know that I dinnit do it for no money. I dinnit for us."

Another weary cheer, and Doug raises both arms, nodding and smiling.

A bent old man leaning far forward and carrying two shopping bags struggles through the gate. A few calls ring out: "Hi, George!" "Hey, George! How ya doin'?" George nods a little from inside his big fur-lined hood and slowly makes his way along the walk to the steps that lead down to the door. In deference to his age, George is allowed to take the front of the line.

A woman pokes her head around the corner, sees the crowd, and disappears again to wait alone until her name is called.

A newcomer passes through the gate, and immediately a bearded man shoves through the crowd heading toward him shouting furiously, "What the hell you coming around with that for?" He leans toward him with clenched fists, the skin around his eyes twitching.

The newcomer takes a frightened step back. "What?" he asks. "Come around with what?"

"That lead pipe!" the bearded man shouts. "What're you lookin' for, a fight? Get the hell outa here, you sonofabitch!"

The crowd watches.

"This ain't no lead pipe," says the newcomer.

"That ain't no lead pipe," a laconic voice from the crowd affirms.

"This here's a pole," the newcomer explains, and presents it. It's a broomstick: a brush can be screwed onto the grooves at the end of the stick; with it he can make a few dollars washing restaurant windows. It is old and the grooves are nearly worn away.

The bearded man glances at the pole and shouts furiously, "Yeah? Well, I got a present for you, mister!"

"What d'ya got?" the newcomer's voice is awkward and quavering. "A gun? A knife? What?"

"I got a present for you, mister! Just you stay there, and you'll see what kind of present I got!"

The bearded man pushes past the newcomer and runs down the street. The crowd murmurs. The newcomer glances from face to face and fidgets with his bags.

"So, what's he got?" he asks those nearest.

"Says he got a present," one shrugs.

The bearded man trots back through the gate and thumps down a fresh, new broomstick beside the newcomer's.

"There!" he shouts. "That's a pole! See them grooves? That's a pole! That's a present for you! You sonofabitch!"

A few step forward from the crowd and examine the two broomsticks with grimaces and comments, like a bunch of old jewelers appraising two diamonds.

"That's a good pole," one says.

"Yeah, it is."

The bearded man turns on his heel and strides back into the crowd without another word. The newcomer smiles weakly and joins the others, who are examining his windfall.

"He's been carrying that pole all day," an old man tells the newcomer. "Had it since before I got locked up."

"Locked up? What for?" another asks.

"Drinkin'."

"What's the matter?" calls someone from across the yard. "They late or something tonight? Anbyody know what time it is?"

Doug, who shoveled the walk, pounds the door with the snow shovel's handle. The door opens, and into the bulb's glare steps a woman. Deb, or "Sergeant Deb" as the men sometimes call her, waves a sheet of paper, smiling at the crowd.

"Everybody here?"

A resounding, hoarse "Yeah!" fills the courtyard.

"We got food tonight!" she says. "Makes me hungry just smelling it!"

"Yummy yummy yummy!" comes from somewhere. "Good food in my tummy!"

George has struggled to his feet and is collecting his bundles.

"OK, George," she says. "Come on in."

"Go ahead George," the others say. He creaks down the stairs and one of the men quickly moves to help him down and through the door.

When George is safely inside, Deb starts calling out names. Each man answers when his name is called, collects his bundles, and hurries inside. A few stagger down the steps accompanied by cries of "Be careful!" "Watch it!"

Doug's name is called, and he tumbles down the steps and sprawls in the snow before Deb. He lies with his eyes closed, groaning.

"Jesus Christ, he's drunk," one mumbles sadly, shaking his head.

Two others grip Doug's arms and drag him on his knees through the door.

"Thanks guys," says Deb.

She calls more names. One is not answered and shouts go up: "Jane! Where's Jane at?" "I just saw her!" "Here she comes!"

Jane comes tearing around the corner with her bundles, smiling shyly at the dwindling group, and goes down the stairs and inside.

As the courtyard empties one of the few men remaining moans, "They can't do this to me!"

"Don't worry," says his companion, "you can have my spot if your name ain't called." But a moment later the man's name is called, and he dashes inside as if the door might be slammed in his face.

Finally, Deb reaches the end of her list. A few people are still standing in the courtyard, but she has no extra food tonight, and has to turn them away. "I'm sorry," she says.

They trudge off, one spitting curses at her as they leave.

The last man has gone inside; the courtyard is empty, the shelter full. Deb goes inside and shuts the door.

The last man to enter lunges straight for the tables. Deb grabs his arm.

"You've got to sign up, or there's no food for you."

She leads him to the sign-in book. The book sits on a desk by the front door, sharing it with a large, hand-printed sign:

(1) No Congregating before the center opens or after it closes

(2) No Alcohol

(3) No Weapons

(4) No Drugs

(5) No Fighting

(6) No One Allowed in off-limits area

(7) No Abusive Language Show respect for the Staff, Volunteers, and Other Guests.

Sign In

The man stares at the sign-in book, glassy eyed, swaying, holding the pen Deb has put in his hand.

"I don't wanna sign nuthin'," he rasps.

"You're drunk--"

"I'm not drunk!" he roars.

"I could light a match from here--"

"I bet ya ten bucks it wouldn't torch--"

"You've got to sign," Deb says firmly.

"Ahh . . ." The man grimaces, but he signs his name painstakingly, gripping the stand. Then he makes for the tables.

As another of the group approaches the sign-in book, he's tapped on the shoulder.

"Excuse me," a man in a long brown scarf says politely, though with a threatening edge, "but I was here first."

The other relents, hands him the pen, and waits his turn.

Everyone must sign in before they will be served a dinner and given a mattress. The sign-in book then serves as a list of reservations for the following night. Some of those who come to the shelter call this procedure favoritism, but Deb, who oversees the shelter, calls it a "stabilizer." She estimates that of the 25 people the shelter accommodates every night, three-fourths are regulars. She gets to know the faces that appear every night, so "we know who's coming in and there's a sense of community," she says. "This is their 'home.'"

A man staggers in wildly, arms swinging, as though trying to keep his balance on a tightrope. He whimpers softly. Deb recognizes him, puts her arms around his shoulders.

"Come over here, Jimmy. We'll set you down," she says, leading him to a mattress in the corner of the room, where he collapses. Deb covers him with a blanket and then approaches another who sits slumped on the floor in a corner, still in his coat and hat and gloves, his head between his knees.

"You want to eat?" she asks him, bending near.

He lifts his head to her. His eyes flicker open, bloodshot and glazed.

"Yeah," he mumbles.

"You signed in?"

"Yeah . . ."

"Well, we got tons of food. Come over here."

Deb helps him to stand and guides him to a table, gently sitting him down beside the others. One of the volunteers sets a plate of spaghetti in front of him. He stares at it blankly, as if it were a plate of doorknobs.

The men sit side by side at the tables, bent over their plates, still encased in heavy coats and hats, their faces and hands still red from the cold. A faint, moldy, sweetish smell slowly permeates the basement.

The basement serves as a day-care center during the day, and the place is full of toys. Shelves are crammed with dollhouses, games, fireman and policeman hats, and a big purple teddy bear. In a corner sit a toy baby carriage and ironing board, and on the rear wall is a pastoral scene.

At night three or four tables are set up, and dinner is cooked by neighborhood volunteers. The shelter is a coalition of three churches; because the basement here can't accommodate all those who come in every night, after dinner half will walk through the alley and around the corner to sleep at another church.

The shelter was started four years ago by volunteers from the neighborhood. And while now it offers food and a mattress every night from November through April, this was not always so.

The first year food was not served every night and the shelter was open only from January to April. Now, however, the shelter can provide not only a place to eat and sleep, but showers and laundry as well.

Most recently, the shelter has been able to provide medical services, such as tending to injuries gotten in the streets and medication for the alcoholic seizures and high blood pressure from which many of the homeless suffer.

Four volunteers go among the tables serving plates of spaghetti and cups of lemonade. They will work through the night in shifts, and serve breakfast at 6 AM.

"Can you put this back in the oven?" one asks a young man who is helping out tonight, "It's cold."

He takes the plate back to the adjoining kitchen.

A voice calls out to the volunteers: "Everything is absolutely delicious!"

"Would you like anything else?" a teenage girl asks an older man frowning grimly at the floor.

"Yeah," he snaps tersely, "give me a goddamn plate of shit. That's what I want. A goddamn plate of shit."

The girl's head jolts back, but she walks to the kitchen smiling, glancing at the other volunteers, who smile sympathetically as she passes.

Many of the men and women eat silently, gazing just to the left or right of the person across from them, or down at their plates. Their expressions are blank and weary.

One man sits chewing, absently staring at the shelves of toys through his matted, tangled hair, which mingles with his beard. He wears a bulky coat with no buttons that might once have been brown suede but has been worn a shiny black. He reaches for a roll. The cold has burned his hand until it glows like hot metal.

Across from him sits an old, white-bearded man who wears a dark overcoat and knit cap. He eats, gazing at the wall.

"For many of them," says Deb, "this is the one time during the day when they can sit. Many keep on the go all day in the cold. For many of them this is the one place where they can use a washroom. I can't imagine not being able to use a washroom when you need it. Especially for women. It's a lot more awkward for them."

The man in the army coat pushes away his empty plate and says to a visitor, "I worked at the VA Hospital, as assistant recreation therapist . . . I was in the Marine Corps in Vietnam. When I came back I fell into a sort of manic depression. My emotions fluctuate to a very great degree--maybe just because I'm a very compassionate person . . . after a while the hospital just got to be too much for me and I left. And, well, one thing led to another. I was sleeping in the parks--wherever I could find shelter.

"I was very leery about coming here, because of the sleeping. Like with my ex-wives. I'd wake up in the night thinking I was overseas. When I came here I slept under that table over there so if I woke up I'd conk myself and wouldn't start up with someone and hit him on the head.

"I get a big lump in my throat every time I come here. It reminds me of my situation. What I need is a base, you know? Someplace where I can leave my stuff during the day and maybe try to get work. But what I'm doing now is wood carving. I'd like to open my own shop someday. This is what I'm doing now--"

He takes from a briefcase a carved wood-link chain.

"It's all I can carve now, chains. I guess it's the psychology of this life. I'm chained to it. This place is good and necessary, but it can be a crutch. You just keep coming back. It's a no-win situation. You need the shelters and the programs but they become a crutch so that you don't get anywhere."

"It's not the public that's the problem," says a tall, white-haired man. "It's the government. They say they're putting all these funds into taking care of the homeless, but where the hell are the funds? Not here! This isn't a government-run shelter."

One of the three women in the shelter says, "I had an unhappy home, that's why I'm here. I simply felt that it was time to move on, and I went to a shelter.

"The first few days were terribly frightening. But I've fallen in love with one of the men here and I'm happier now, on the street, than I've ever been. I don't think I would have made it without his help. Now we spend our days canning together, and we're waiting for public aid so we can get an apartment together and start a new life.

"We're not the types who plan to spend all our lives here. We have every plan of being useful members of society. I was a receptionist for 15 years, and I'll get a job doing that again, or office work of some kind, again. And he's also looking for work now.

"There's a misconception about homeless people. We're not all smelly, drunken people. So often we are portrayed as that. It's a fallacy."

A man in a cap and denim jacket says, "Everybody's got a story. I could blame my family, or my girl, or the system, but really, when you get right down to it, you can only blame yourself. It's my own doing, really--I'm a loser, that's all. I can only blame myself. But I've got to pull myself out of this now.

"It's funny. Everybody's got a story. I was baptized in this church. I sang choir in this church. I went to school in this neighborhood. Now I'm back where I started. Everybody's got a story."

Laughter goes up from one of the tables, and a mustached man sings loudly, waveringly, laughing:

When I was 21, it was a very good year!

A very good year for pretty girls!

"Everyone!" he shouts. The others at his table join the singing in hoarse, off-key warbles:

When I was 21, it was a very good year!

For pretty girls!

It came undone when I was--21!

More laughter. The other tables don't seem to notice the uproarious singers and continue their conversations or sit alone. Finally, one of the volunteers quiets the table. The mustached man sings on for a line, smiling, stabbing his fork into a roll, "A very good year!"

When dinner is over, the group fold and put away the tables and chairs, throw away the paper plates and cups. The man in the army coat mops the floor.

Suddenly shouts go up; two of the men are standing nose to nose, arguing. The argument escalates and the two are on the verge of a fight. The man in the army coat throws down the mop and bellows above the confusion, beating his chest, "Hey you bastards, if you got a problem either take me on, or take it outside! But don't go fighting in here! This is my home!"

The place falls silent.

"I can respect that," says one of the opponents.

"Now stop acting silly," someone says, "and shake hands."

The two men glare at each other. One breaks into a grin and sticks out his hand. They shake hands. Then they fall into each other's arms and waltz a few steps, humming and laughing.

"This is where you guys belong," someone says, "in a goddamn nursery."

Deb stands in the middle of the room waving a sheet of paper.

"How many of you want to sign up to take a shower on Saturday morning?"

The crowd is still talking and moving around.

"Look, guys," she says, "I don't appreciate five million people talking while I'm trying to talk--"

"Why don't you all shut up?" one shouts. "Listen to the lady! It's for your own good!"

"Thank you, Skipper," says Deb.

Another murmur is silenced by a chorus of "Shh!"

Deb smiles with humor and exasperation, glancing at the four volunteers who stand by the kitchen door and smile back. Despite all the trouble and frustration of her job, Deb is dedicated to it. "Homeless people have a right not to be on the street. They're people," she said, "and have a right to food, clothing, and shelter--the basic human needs. And if this is a stepping stone to that, then I've got to do this. I cannot not do it. And there's a need. I'm very much dedicated to empowering those who are powerless. Somebody's got to keep making changes or there'll be more and more homeless people." This sense of purpose sustains Deb through the countless trying and exasperating incidents every night.

"So!" she says, now that the place is quiet, "who wants to sign up for showers on Saturday?"

"Sign me up first!" one calls.

"What about me?" another whines.

"OK Paul," she calms him.

Some of the men sign up for showers, as one by one the half of the group that will sleep at the other church file out the door. One stops to complain to Deb about not having breakfast at the other shelter the previous morning.

"A glass of OJ--and out the door!"

"Hey!" another shouts at him. "Be happy with what you got! 'What? No anchovies?' Be happy with it, man!"

The last person leaves, and the men in the basement undress and get under their blankets on the mattresses on the floor. One of them is whimpering, near tears.

"You want your teddy bear?" asks one.

The man nods. The purple teddy bear is taken from the shelf and given to the whimpering man, who embraces it and becomes quiet.

"Everybody got their blankets?" asks Deb. "Everybody ready to hit the sack?"

The lights go off, the basement is dark. The volunteers go with Deb into the little office down the hall. The conversations from the mattresses fade into satisfied snores: a good snooze before facing the streets again at dawn. The weather report predicts three more inches of snow tomorrow.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.

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