Hard Times USA

Searching For a Place to Sleep

"I’ve been homeless and mostly living outside ... Nobody should have to sleep outside. I mean that."

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Aaron Rutten

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from The Book of the Poor: Who They Are, What They Say, and How To End Their Poverty.T.M.’s story was written in the spring of 2012. (T.M. is in his fifties and has been living on the street, off and on, for a majority of those years.):

The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. —Matthew: 8:20

For four years, I’ve been homeless and mostly living outside. Finally, finally, I was able to get an SRO (single room occupancy in a multiple tenant building) in Chicago. It was great until I awoke and discovered it was infested with bedbugs and I was covered with their bites.

Nobody should have to sleep outside. I mean that. I think of all the guys who do. It is not something you want to do.

I’ve done a lot of things to survive. We all do. I’ve been through a couple of blizzards and some really cold times. And we got wet at times, really wet.

The first day I had no roof to stay under, I walked and walked until two or three o’clock in the morning. Finally, I went in a doorway and up some stairs. I slept next to somebody’s apartment and made certain I got up before they came out of it.

I’ve stayed in a homeless shelter in Chicago, but I ran into too many gangbangers and decided it was too dangerous to keep doing it.

I have ridden the “L” trains all night, but twice my pockets were slit while I was sleeping and I lost my I.D. card. There was never any money in my pockets. I didn’t have any. They just probably threw my I.D. in the trash, but I was forced to get a new one. Once someone stole my shoes. That was it.

I moved to a suburb where there was a decent shelter, but it was so crowded that I had to wait six months before I could get a bed. I stayed there for a little while, but they cut the beds back to just 20 and I was out on the street again. You wait and wait for an opening, but sometimes they just give the next bed to someone they want to.

There have been times when someone let me stay with him or her. We have all experienced that, but it doesn’t last. And let me tell you, there is nothing like having a place of your own.

We call it sleeping “under the viaduct” because it is so much like that, but it is actually under a loading dock. We are not bothered and, when the weather is right, we feel we have something like a place of our own. There used to be four or five places in this town where you could get away from the worst of the blizzards or the storms. Now, there are only two. Once you start sleeping there, others will respect that it is yours.

We had a place for several months where three of us stayed. We had sleeping bags and lots of blankets. Every morning we got up early and hid them. We never told anyone where we hid them, and we had to make certain no one found out.

On the really cold and stormy nights, we went to bed early. We got into our sleeping bags and wrapped ourselves in every blanket we could. The problem was if you had to get up to take a leak or when you got up in the morning. Some guys and some of the women get drunk because it helps them keep warm. I drink because it helps, but I never get drunk.

One of the guys who had too much to drink one very cold night fell down in the street and froze his toes off.

One church has a warming center that is open from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and they feed you coffee and rolls. During the day, when it is cold or raining, you stay in the library if you don’t make any disturbance. I use the computer there a lot.

The homeless shelter lets you take a shower and, when it has them, passes out blankets.

In the evening, the various churches take turns providing a meal. And, then, it is back to the viaduct, the dock, or a place in the alley, where you try to sleep.

Recently, we’ve seen more and more homeless, all kind of ages and backgrounds, younger and older people, six or seven new people every week. One dude is about 18 years old and works at Burger King, but doesn’t make enough money to get an apartment. Two young people this week are probably only 16 years old.

Those of us who have been around a while help them out. We tell them where they can get clothes or a meal. Some would probably starve to death if they didn’t know where to go.

There’s a lot of depression going around. Most homeless people have depression problems. One guy when he goes to find work just can’t go into the place. He walks back and forth in front. Who knows what experiences or maybe a bunch of experiences he had in the past when he went for a job. Now, when he gets a lead on a job, somebody’s got to with him so he will go in the door.

I used to work at a soup kitchen, so a lot of the homeless come up to me and ask me if they can talk. I listen. That’s why I know about their depression.

They’re depressed because it’s hard to be homeless, especially in the winter. I know a couple of guys who froze to death and another one who hung himself.

Winter can really be tough. My buddy and I had to stay out in a real blizzard last year. We had gone around to all our friends who had apartments to ask if we could stay overnight. Nobody had room for us.

You can ride the “L” [train] if you have the money. If you don’t, you can ask someone with a seven-day or a monthly pass to put you through the turnstile, but they can lose the pass if they get caught and you can be arrested.

Besides, riding the L at night can be dangerous. I was on a car in which the passengers were robbed at gunpoint. The gunmen saw I was homeless and didn’t bother me. I started to get off at the next stop, but then I saw the robbers were getting off. I sure didn’t want to be with them.

One night we were in an open parking garage, in kind of an alcove. The snow blew right up to our faces. We survived because each of us was wrapped in three sleeping bags. Otherwise, we could have frozen to death.

Copyright © 2012 by Kenan Heise. Reprinted with permission of Marion Street Press, Portland, OR.

Kenan Heise is an award-winning author and journalist as well as an inductee into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame. A retired reporter, columnist, and staff writer for the Chicago Tribune, he served for 17 years as the editor of the “Action Line” column and for 15 years as the chief obituary writer. He is the author of 25 books, including He Writes About Us and They Speak for Themselves: Interviews with the Destitute of Chicago. He lives in Chicago.

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