By Tom Holmes
Anthony and Kim panhandle almost every day where the ramps to and from the Eisenhower intersect with Harlem Avenue. If they are lucky, they make enough to pay for a $17/person hotel room, some cheap food and train fare.
Anthony, who is 36 years old, said, "Every time you hold up that cardboard sign with homeless printed on it, it takes a little piece of you away. It's degrading."
Kim added, "I'm embarrassed."
Their story is like the ones we've heard from many homeless people. Anthony was running a media company called Blueline Recording with his mother. She then pulled all her money out of the business, moved to Iowa and left him with all of the debt. He sold his townhouse to keep up with the payments, and then his car broke down. Without his own transportation, he had a hard time looking for a job after he lost the business. He stayed with friends when he couldn't come up with the rent, and when his friends moved out of town, he wound up on the street about a year and a half ago.
Bad luck? Poor judgment? A little naivete? Abandoned by friends and family? According to Anthony, it's a little of all the above.
Kim's story is different — and private. Afflicted with high anxiety, she doesn't talk about how and why she ended up on the street.
Another homeless man named John taught Anthony to panhandle. "The first time I did it," he recalled, "I made $15 real fast and I thought that I might be on to something. I did well at first and that raised my hopes that I'd get off the street quickly. But that changed. We're making a lot less these days, maybe a quarter of what we did when we started. In two hours today, Kim and I together made $13."
He said it's easier surviving during the warm-weather months, because he and Kim can sleep outside if they don't make enough money that day from panhandling, but in the cold months, the only option is trying to sleep sitting up at Rush Oak Park Hospital or do the same while riding the el.
The problem with the el, he said, is that when the train gets to the end of the line, they have to pay another $6 to keep riding. On top of that sometimes other homeless people will steal their possessions if they fall asleep.
"Sometimes," he said, "people will yell, 'Get a job' out of their car window as they drive up the ramp to Harlem, but they don't understand that I don't have a phone to make appointments because it and my ID were stolen, I don't have a car to drive to interviews that are far away, and I don't have a place to shower or change clothes so I look presentable during the interview."
It takes Kim an hour every morning to get up the courage to go back out to the ramp. "People have called me 'scum bag' and a whole lot worse," she said. "What's more, we compete with other homeless people for the most lucrative places."
Kim and Anthony view panhandling very much like their jobs. They speak of their "shifts" and "taking breaks." Anthony said, contrary to how many people think, it's hard work. "I have blisters on blisters," he said, "because I walk so far every day."
Kim talked about the ethics of the business of panhandling. "Some panhandlers walk right up to car windows in an intimidating way," she said, adding, "That's rude. One woman wrote on her cardboard sign that she's pregnant and she's not. I won't do that. When you lie, God is not going to help you."
They acknowledged that many of the panhandlers are scammers. They dress up in army uniforms, for example, or hold up a gas can claiming they need a few bucks for their car. And then people see them out there the next day holding the same gas can. "People stop helping real homeless people like us because of scammers or they hear on the news that a homeless person stabbed someone, and they generalize that all homeless people are like that."
Religion is important to the two who are more friends and survival partners than married. Anthony said that before he began living on the street, he was angry at God for a while because of his father dying so young, which led to his string of bad luck, "but when I became homeless is when I began to hold God a little closer."
Kim said, "I always wear my rosary and make the sign of the cross before I go on the ramp, but I don't do it on the ramp. I actually try to hide because some panhandlers pretend to be religious in order to get more money. I won't do that."
Lynda Schueler, director of Housing Forward, responded with empathy to complaints by Kim and Anthony about the PADS shelters and why some street people do not make use of them.
"Homeless individuals," Schueler said, "have a tough decision between losing hours that may potentially garner cash vs. a warm place to sleep for the night. Due to the emergency shelter being in a different location each night, it does require walking, taking public transportation or catching a ride."
However, many of the shelter sites are concentrated in the Oak Park community, she noted, allowing for easier access between sites, and Housing Forward is in the process of adding on new shelter sites to increase bed availability and reduce turn-aways. Calvary Memorial Church, for example, is a new shelter site on Thursday evenings, offering 20 beds with a family preference.
Forest Park Police Chief Tom Aftanas naturally views the issue of homelessness through the lens of law enforcement. "We truly do not want to make arrests on those who are homeless," he said, "but many ignore warnings, use drugs and discard needles in public areas and put themselves and motorists at risk."
"We have to respond to public complaints," he added. "I know that some feel the police hate them. That is not true. I'm sure some officers may get impatient because previous warnings are repeatedly ignored. If they want help and ask, they will get it. We do not find ways to make it illegal."
Aftanas said the police department does not have a zero tolerance approach to panhandling. He said officers first give verbal warnings that panhandlers are violating local ordinances while giving information on the shelters, and it is only after repeated violations that arrests are made.
"If anyone needs information on PADS," he added, "all they have to do is ask an officer or call the non-emergency number at 708-366-2425. More often than not, if they need a ride to a shelter, we would do that. We also escort them in after hours if need be."
The solution? A website called invisiblePEOPLE contends that ending homelessness in America "requires multifaceted solutions," including building more affordable housing, paying wages that cover the real costs of living, and increasing access to supportive services like affordable health and mental health care services.