Kim has been homeless for six years and Anthony for three. You might have seen them panhandling on the ramps at Harlem and the Eisenhower.
Just like it has for many in Forest Park, COVID-19 has turned their lives upside down, and recently perhaps downside up.
One way they have been impacted is that they’ve lost several of their homeless friends to the virus.
Another way is that since the lockdown and stay at home orders went to effect, it’s been increasingly difficult to make the money they need. Anthony said there aren’t as many cars on the road, because people are either working from home or are unemployed. Those who are driving, he added, seem to be less willing to open their car windows for fear of being infected.
“For example, Sundays used to be the best day of the week for panhandling,” he said, “because people coming to and from church were very generous. Now, with everyone doing church at home, Sundays are the worst day.”
Kim said they have regular people who have gotten to know them by name and give them a dollar or two every time they drive by them on the ramp, but even those folks are giving less because they’ve become unemployed or are being more careful with their budgets. Some will occasionally hire them to do odd jobs like moving furniture.
On top of that, the 13 regular panhandlers at the Harlem ramps are experiencing competition from newcomers who have become homeless during the last few months.
“Not only are many of the newcomers more aggressive,” said Kim, “but they don’t follow the rules like the regulars do.”
What Kim meant is that the regulars have actually created an unwritten set of rules to govern how they do business, like not knocking aggressively on car windows and cleaning up their garbage.
Kim, in fact, will reprimand non-complying newcomers saying, “You’re making this town look terrible by shoplifting and leaving trash around. I live here. This is my town. Get out.”
“There are good homeless people and bad homeless people,” said Anthony, “just like the rest of the world. For example, last summer I was stabbed in the chest by a guy for the $10 I had.”
That is one reason the couple stays to themselves most of the time.
Another reason, of course, is the COVID virus. They have resisted going to the PADS shelters, because of their fear of being infected in the large groups at the shelters. And riding the Blue Line all night is expensive and increasingly dangerous. So what Kim and Anthony have chosen to do is to sleep for the last six months in a tent they set up in a secluded wooded area in Forest Park, a less than ideal situation, because it is cold in the winter and leaks when it rains.
Another reason they stay to themselves is that Kim is challenged with high anxiety which intensifies when she is in crowds. “I should be on medication,” she said. “I was when I was a teenager, but since I’ve been on the street I don’t have a doctor and I don’t have health insurance if I did.”
Anthony is very protective of Kim but added that there is a lot of mental illness among the people who choose to live on the street.
He said even if you do not have a diagnosed mental illness when you start living on the street, that life style quickly changes you. “When you have been homeless for a while,” he said, “it’s hard to get back into society, into a structured environment.”
Kim said there is a certain freedom that goes with being homeless. You don’t have to punch a time clock. You have don’t have to follow rules in the workplace or your apartment building.
That said, Anthony cannot understand why anyone would choose the homeless lifestyle. Not only has he been mugged, slept in a tent which leaks in the rain and gone hungry when they don’t make money panhandling, he has also had serious health issues because of being so exposed to the elements.
During the recent stretch of 90 degree weather, he developed sun blisters which were actually bleeding and then got infected because he had to wear the same clothing several days in a row. He got treatment at a local ER and was told to stay out of the sun, which he couldn’t do because he and Kim are living each day hand to mouth. He put it this way, “When people have a home and they get the flu, they stay in bed, drink fluids they keep in the refrigerator and pass the time by watching TV. We have to get back out on the ramp and make a little money even though we feel terrible or we don’t eat that day.”
Last Friday, Kim and Anthony got the break they’ve been waiting for, a room at a local hotel. Housing Forward, the non-profit housing agency, is currently responding to COVID-19 by housing 120 homeless people in individual housing. “By the grace of God we got this hotel room,” said Anthony. “Otherwise I would probably have wound up in the hospital.”
Along with being grateful that among other things he can take a shower and save a lot of money by microwaving food from the supermarket instead paying high prices at fast food places, the couple knows that moving into the more structured environment in Housing Forward’s program of getting people off the street, into their own housing and into employment will be a challenging adjustment.
“One step at a time,” said Anthony. “We’re going to have to take it one step at a time.”