I don’t smoke. I have actually never smoked but my great Aunt Beth smoked like a chimney. I used to bug her that she lit her last cigarette on VE Day and kept lighting them one off another since then. I grew used to some second hand smoke growing up with her around and even now when someone at work wants to step outside for a cigarette, I may come along (as long as it’s nice out).
While in Chicago, my co-worker Bobbie smokes and I was outside the front of the Marriott loitering and chatting when a guy came up, called me brother and her sister, did the Obama fist bump, and proceeded to tell us he was homeless and living under Michigan Avenue. He needed money for a box of chicken. My first reaction was to reach for my business cards and have him call the shelter and then I realized I was in the wrong city and wrong country to do anything so we gave him some change (I had no cash on me) and he was off to panhandle the next group. It was a weird moment as both of us have the resources working at the community centre to get some food and shelter for a homeless person and it felt weird to be powerless in that situation.
Later that night the whole thing was kind of bothering me. I wondered if he was ripping me off (he probably was) but the image of a man and his family sleeping underneath the Magnificent Mile really bothered me so I got dressed, left my Mastercard and some ID behind and decided to find them. I went to the Concierge and asked if there was a homeless encampment nearby and he looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Yeah but you don’t want to go down there this late at night.” After getting some tips and assuring the concierge that I did want to go down there at night.
I went for my walk with some ID (in case things went bad) and my Mini Mag light and decided to see what I could find. I didn’t find the guy and his family but I did find guys huddled into corners, the shadows, and even in a dark dumpster. I talked to a couple and listened to to their stories which weren’t so much stories but a kind of a homeless “elevator pitch” for money. I spent about an hour down there and as I was heading back to the hotel (my room was normally $900/night) it struck me that I was the only one down there other than some Chicago police on ATVs. After I thought how my obituary was going to read, “Dumbass Canadian killed while walking alone late at night…”, I spent some time thinking about the size of Chicagoland, the impact of a lack of medical insurance and mental health problems, the weather (it was above 65 degrees even at night), addictions, but most of all how alone it felt down there. They weren’t in an encampment or even hanging out together which in many ways makes it a harder problem to help.
In the end, it was what it was. A big complex problem that exists in almost every city in the world. This one just happened to be in a city where I could do very little about it. I went back to my hotel feeling a lot more unsettled than I was when I left.