“You put the book (up) like you’re reading. … Or, you wear sunglasses while you’re reading,” he says. “[You] just have to make sure that the book is not upside down when you fall asleep.”
Stores, restaurants, etc.
Restaurants, coffee shops and stores also offer a warm place to duck into, especially on bitterly cold nights when libraries are mostly closed.
At some private establishments, Cunningham says staff are not welcoming to homeless people or anyone who appears to be settling in for a prolonged stay. Over time, Cunningham developed a detailed mental map of which restaurants and coffee shops were hospitable to homeless people, and would allow them to sit and nurse a coffee for hours at a time.
“McDonalds … Burger King,” he rattles off. “There’s a restaurant on Canal and Roosevelt called the White Palace. It’s been there a lot of years, and it’s open 24 hours.”
One of Cunningham’s frequent places was the Dunkin Donuts kitty-corner from the Harold Washington Library, where he developed an early morning routine. “Coffee, couple wraps, corner seat, and eat very, very slowly,” says Cunningham. He often sat at a table tucked way in the back where he was least likely to be disturbed or noticed.
However, Cunningham says he would only try this option if he felt his hygiene was up to par; he didn’t want attention from the staff or other patrons. And, of course, Cunningham notes that restaurants and coffee shops were only an option when he could spare a couple of dollars to buy a coffee, which he didn’t always have.
City warming centers
On the coldest of days, when temperatures fall below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, the City of Chicago allows people to visit its six warming centers. Most are open between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on weekdays. Chicago police stations and hospitals also allow individuals to sit in lobbies or waiting rooms. In general, these facilities will call a mobile van outreach program to pick up and transport people to homeless shelters to stay overnight.
Cunningham says the wait for the outreach van can be long. He recalled going to the Grand Crossing Police Station near 71st Street and South Cottage Grove Avenue. Staff called the mobile outreach van to pick him up and take him to a shelter. “I was sitting in the lobby, hugging a heater from 8 p.m.‘til about 3 or 4 in the morning,” he remembers. “And I just got tired and said, ‘Well, look, I’m going to go back to the ‘L’ because this is just madness.’”
Of course, some people manage to live outside even through cold winters. Cunningham didn’t try this.
“I don’t do outside, and I don’t do the camping thing,” he says.
Constant exposure to cold weather, uncertainty about one’s own safety and the security of one’s personal belongings can take a mental and physical toll. But depending on one’s health and equipment, this option may be preferable to others.
So-called “tent cities,” where homeless people form encampments under highways or in parks, have become increasingly visible in Chicago during recent years. For many who choose this living arrangement, it offers a deep sense of community that other options lack. They share resources, donations and help to protect each other against outsiders or the elements. Many people who live outdoors also say it offers them complete autonomy over their lifestyle and schedule, which they would lose if they were to go to a homeless shelter.
Shelters are perhaps what most people, including our question asker, think of when they consider where someone without a home might stay.
Cunningham preferred to stay in shelters during the winter when he lacked other indoor options. He says shelters offered him a better sleep than CTA trains.
“You got your mats, your sheets, your blankets,” he explains.
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Chicago had 5,469 shelter beds available year-round in 2016. In general, that’s enough shelter beds to meet demand.
But on the coldest nights, the shelter system in Chicago does expand capacity. Lydia Stazen Michael, Vice President of Communications at All Chicago, says that on frigid nights, capacity may increase by 500 hundred spaces, allowing people to stay in hallways, or in shelter cafeterias where tables are cleared away to open floor space.
“It’s not great space,” she explains. “It’s like mats on the floor.” She says they do it because they won’t turn people away when it is dangerously cold outside.
Let’s return to the second part of Jake’s question: If shelters in Chicago have this expanded capacity in the winter, why don’t they house homeless people year round?
“The demand just goes down in the warmer weather,” says Stazen Michael. In other words, homeless people opt to go elsewhere when the weather gets warmer, perhaps because shelters can have so many downsides.
Cunningham says one of those downsides involves restrictions on where he and others could be during the daytime. At one shelter at which Cunningham stayed, he says staff were concerned that neighbors would complain about the shelter becoming a neighborhood nuisance if people loitered close by.
“They didn’t like you hanging in the two-block radius where the shelters and stuff were,” he says. “So you had to move around.”
Another common restriction at shelters is curfews. If an individual doesn’t make it back to the shelter by, say, 6:45 p.m., he or she may lose a spot. Additionally, several places have sobriety rules, requiring guests to stay clean during their time at the shelter.
Cunningham says that at one privately-run shelter, he was uncomfortable with a requirement to participate in religious activities in order to receive meals; “If you didn’t participate in sermons … they locked the door until after dinner.”
Many homeless people report of bed bugs at some shelters. They also fear having their personal possessions stolen.
The most common concern is that some shelters feel chaotic and unsafe. They can be like tinder boxes: communal living arrangements for groups of people who sometimes are dealing with major life stressors such as drug dependency and mental health challenges — in addition to unstable housing. One homeless services worker says that, in the worst cases, there are instances of physical fights and sexual abuse.
So to answer Jakes question: Shelters can be rough places to stay, and while many people use them to escape low temperatures in the winter, they choose to leave once the weather turns milder. Simply expanding capacity year-round would not necessarily solve homelessness in Chicago.
For Cunningham, the answer to homelessness was income. After years of waiting to receive federal disability benefits, he finally started getting those checks late last year. With that income, he qualified for a two-year subsidized housing program in a South Shore neighborhood. With a stable roof over his head, Cunningham looks forward to starting a job training program soon and working.
Cunningham says the key to finding a solution is to know that each person is unique.
“We’re all homeless for different reasons. Some have medical reasons, mental reasons,” he says. “So, there’s really no blanket answer to fix it without finding each individual that’s homeless, figure out how he or she got that way, and that’s about the best answer I can give you.”
More about our questioner
Jake Riley is a buyer for a lighting company in Chicago’s River North neighborhood. He moved to Chicago from Nashville, Tennessee, seven years ago and lives in the Edgewater neighborhood.
“I live right next to the Red Line, the Thorndale station,” he says, explaining that most of his observations about the city come when he’s getting around on foot or by public transit.
Now that he’s heard about Cunningham’s experiences navigating winters without a home, Riley says he appreciates the reminder that not all homeless people are the same.
“It’s easy to not think like that, (and to think) that everyone is in the same boat and there’s a solution for all,” he says, “and there’s not.”