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Thursday, May 20, 2004 01:15 pm

Portraits from the street

Pamela Gray
Photo by Todd Spivak

Remarkably, Pamela Gray considers herself fortunate.

She beams at the thought of her two daughters in college, her son's good-paying job, and her baby granddaughter just five-months-old. They come to visit her from Chicago when they can.

But Gray, who stays at a shelter on South 11th Street, can't make the trip up north. Not yet, anyway. The temptations are too many, their consequences too forbidding.

Gray, 40, grew up in some of the most impoverished and violent housing projects on Chicago's West and South sides.

The back of her left hand bears a tattoo, now faded, of the name of a street gang that recruited her at age 12.

A victim of childhood sexual abuse, Gray became addicted to heroin at 18 and spent much of her adulthood homeless.

She slept in alleys, abandoned buildings, and cars. She prostituted herself to support her drug habit, was jailed, and lost custody of her children, who were taken in and raised by her aunt.

"That was me in my madness," she says. "I won't ever forget my past. I have to remember the pain, so I won't ever go back to it."

Drug-free for nearly a year, Gray today lives at the P.O.R.A. (Positive Options, Referrals and Alternatives) shelter and volunteers at the Springfield Urban League. She plans to earn her general-equivalency degree next month.

"It's a natural high," she says. "I can be a productive person in society. I am somebody, and I'm worthy of getting something in this life."

A success story in progress, Gray is one among hundreds of people living in Springfield's emergency and transitional shelters. Their names begin a list of the city's homeless population, which social service leaders will attempt to count on Friday, May 21.

Based on reports that all the city's shelters remain filled beyond capacity, several social-service providers say they believe the number of homeless has spiked dramatically since last year.

Last August Mayor Tim Davlin assembled a 25-member task force to discuss ways of curbing the problem after 405 people were identified as homeless. Experts say that number likely represented half of the city's actual homeless population.

"If the numbers are less this year," says Rita Tarr, director of transitional shelter Contact Ministries and a chief organizer of the count, "in my opinion, it's because we're not as lucky to find people as last year."

Tarr and other agency leaders will lead dozens of volunteers through Springfield's streets on a four-hour hunt for the homeless, as required by the federal government.

During their search, volunteers may come across Clyde MacIntyre, an older man with a scraggly gray beard who struggles with alcoholism and has been homeless for several years.

Sunday evening, MacIntyre rolled a grocery cart, filled with all of his possessions, alongside railroad tracks on the North Side. Resting on a curb to roll a cigarette, he said he was on his way downtown, where he routinely sleeps in alleys without interruption.

"I stay here and there," MacIntyre says. "I don't like living on the streets, but with heaven on my side, maybe one day I won't have to."

Earlier this month, Carol Hollenback was convinced she would be back on the streets again.

The 58-year-old mother of four had plans to borrow a sleeping bag from a friend and even scouted out a concrete alcove just north of downtown to lay her head at night.

Hollenback has spent the last five months in The Salvation Army's emergency homeless shelter. The agency has repeatedly broken its own policy of allowing clients to stay no more than 30 days in an effort to help her.

"When someone leaves The Salvation Army facility, it's terrible if that person just moves to another shelter, or back to the street," says Commanding Officer Captain Deon Oliver. "I would rather keep Carol here and make room for others even if we have to add more mats."

A Springfield resident since 1991, Hollenback for years labored as a breakfast cook at a variety of local restaurants, including the now-defunct Mr. Ted's diner formerly located at MacArthur and Jefferson.

"I've always worked two jobs," she says.

But health problems rendered her unemployable early last year. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Hollenback also suffers occasional seizures related to a stroke she suffered several years ago.

Twice denied for disability benefits, Hollenback now divides her time between The Salvation Army and St. John's Breadline, where she volunteers making salads and cutting desserts.

"I'm scared about being out on the streets," she says. "But I don't know who else to ask for help."

Unlike in years past, Darrell Chapman, 24, of Jacksonville, will not be included on this year's list of Springfield's homeless.

Chapman, who has a communication disorder resulting from cerebral palsy, has spent winters at Helping Hands' emergency shelter and then stayed outdoors during the rest of the year.

"The hardest part was not knowing where I was going to next," he remembers.

But thanks to Helping Hands caseworker Paulette Roberts, Chapman now lives at the Hildebrandt public housing apartment building on North Eighth, and works part-time as a dishwasher for Bob Evans.

Though out of her care, Roberts continues to play a central role in his everyday life by starching his work shirts, cleaning his room, and budgeting his meager paychecks for rent.

"Darrell needs to be followed or he would fall through the cracks," says Roberts. "He would be one of those people."

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