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Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018 12:21 am

Homelessness is a lot of work


I first heard the rumors a few years ago, when beggars bearing cardboard signs began showing up on street corners throughout the city, about the time the cops started cracking down on downtown panhandlers.

These people are organized. They work in shifts and live in a house near the center of town where they nurse cheap beer and heroin addictions. “It’s a scam,” said a friend who found out on Facebook. “They aren’t really homeless.”

OK, but so what? If the downtrodden have launched a citywide panhandling operation, figuring out the most lucrative locations and best times to stand at them and ensuring that someone did, and then splitting proceeds, that suggests a group of folks with determination, not to mention organizational skills, rivaling the best in corporate America. It is one thing to get ambitious middle managers to work together. Try assembling a team of crackheads and drunks and folks with mental health issues who will show up on time, if at all.

The rumor has persisted. Not long ago, a fellow on the barstool next to me opined that all these sign holders were straight from Oliver Twist. “Who’s Fagin?” he demanded, certain that there’s a pimp of panhandlers somewhere who provides places to sleep and sustenance for the professionally forlorn. It was, I thought, time to learn the truth.

I started at the Washington Street Mission, where those with no other place to go and nothing else to do gather each morning to drink coffee, play cards or simply sit. “Now Is The Day Of Salvation” declares a sign in the front of a chilly room. A nun brings around a box of donuts. Another woman plays religious music on a piano. A black-and-neon-pink ski glove falls, unnoticed, from a man’s coat as he walks outside for a cigarette.

Folks walk over and around the glove until someone finally stops and picks it up. He pulls a black-and-neon-pink ski glove from his coat and holds it next to the one he’s found. Right colors, different pattern. And so he returns the found glove to the floor and continues on his way.

Danny Yocum, ministries director, says the mission doesn’t hand out art supplies or otherwise encourage street corner beggars, but they’re here. He’s saved a sign that someone left behind. “Ho less an hungry, anythings a blessing.” There’s also the guy who draws arrows on the backs of his signs pointing to the tops so that, either through carelessness or drunkenness, he doesn’t accidentally hold his pleas upside down.

Yocum says sign holders know when state workers get paid, and they figure on inclement weather ratcheting generosity. But that’s about as far as organization gets, so far as Yocum knows. It’s a way to make a few bucks and be able to drink while you do it, he says.

At the intersection of Fifth Street and South Grand Avenue, a man  who says he’ll whip my ass if I print his name offers a sip from a pint of cheap vodka he keeps stuffed inside his Carhartt (like the governor wears) coat. He spills nary a leaf as he rolls cigarettes while cars whiz past. “In Need Anything Helps,” his square-foot sign reads – keep it short, he advises, and don’t claim you need money for surgery or otherwise lie. He shows me a few bills and change that nearly overflows his hand – altogether, it looks to be about $10. He’s been here for more than an hour.

“These corners are burned up,” he tells me. “There’s no money on these corners to be made.”

His girlfriend, who works a corner a couple blocks away on South Grand, has made as much as $300 in two days, he tells me. “But she’s a girl,” he says. They’re fighting now, he explains, and so she isn’t here – it’s her fault, really, because she won’t take her medication. “I’m on medication, too,” he says. They live together, he says, in a $200 per month room. His thoughts as he stands with his sign are not pleasant.

“I think about suicide and a whole bunch of bullshit,” he says.

He drifts off, replaced by Vincent Jackson, whose sign reads, “Homeless God Bless.” Sleeping outside, retreating to shelters when there are no other options, subsisting on McDonald’s dollar menus, Jackson knows the life. “It sucks,” Jackson says. “People don’t like to hire felons. I’d rather not get into that.”

He says he’s been homeless, off and on, for a decade. He’s seen a lot from street corners. “You get people looking at you like you’re going to carjack them or something,” he says. “You’ve got some really good people out there. Every once in awhile, you get an asshole who yells, ‘Go get a job’ or something.”

I ask how much money he has to his name. Jackson pulls a few coins from his pocket. That’s it, he says, holding out 50 cents. Just then, a passerby wordlessly plops a dollar into his outstretched hand. “Thank you,” Jackson says. The donor waves a peace sign and keeps walking.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com


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