What started as a fundraiser for winter coats has turned into a neighborhood-wide mission to help an elderly couple
By Patty Wetli, Features Contributor
LINCOLN SQUARE — Someone apparently forgot to tell the good people of Lincoln Square that big cities are supposed to be cold, heartless places.
Because neighbors’ concern for an elderly couple who is homeless has been the stuff of small-town caring and kindness.
It started with a social media post in early November to the Rockwell Neighbors Facebook page, a community hub for folks who live in the west-of-Western neck of Lincoln Square.
Jason Moy opened the discussion: “There is an older couple I’ve seen from time to time around Lincoln Square; they seem pretty well put together but are possibly homeless, and always pushing a whole bunch of suitcases around. I see them occasionally by the Western Brown Line entrance, or taking refuge from a rainstorm under a condo building awning, and most recently keeping warm under the L station heat lamps. Does anyone know their story, and how (or if) we can help them, especially as cold weather descends on us?”
Replies came quickly from others who had likewise seen the pair, including some who had interacted with the couple, either by hauling their bags for them or approaching the duo with offers of food. Piecing together information shared in the post’s comments, a narrative emerged: The two were husband and wife, and were indeed without a home. The man was in particularly poor health, and the couple was both proud and wary.
Crystal Nelson, manager of Ruff Haus Pets, situated just a couple of storefronts north of the Rockwell Brown Line station, was among those following the Facebook post.
She too had seen the couple and originally thought they were tourists as she watched them cross Western Avenue with their luggage. On spying them a second time, she realized their situation was far more desperate.
Nelson has a particular soft spot for older people. She lost her parents at an early age, so she grew up closer to her grandparents than most, even taking a leave from Ruff Haus in 2017 to care for her dying grandmother.
All of which explains, in part, why Nelson was the one who pushed the conversation toward concrete action.
“I feel like it’s all of our responsibility to help out,” she said of her decision to become involved.
Since Ruff Haus is well known among the area’s pet owners, and also the type of business residents readily recognize from their daily CTA commutes, Nelson figured people would trust her if she started a fundraiser for the couple.
Nelson set a goal of $500, expecting that within a week or two she’d have enough money to buy the couple warm winter coats. After sharing the fundraiser with the Rockwell Facebook group, she went to bed.
Nelson wouldn’t get much sleep that night — her phone kept beeping with donation notifications.
Within 12 hours, Nelson’s original target had been met and when she closed the fundraiser the next day, she’d collected nearly $1,000.
“I felt like I won the lottery. The support from everyone was awesome,” she said.
Nelson also became the point person for additional offers of assistance — from people volunteering to store the couple’s belongings to folks investigating the feasibility of occasionally putting the couple up at nearby motels.
“Everyone wants to help,” she said. “I literally just started a fundraiser. The whole neighborhood did this.”
With guidance from staff at Uncle Dan’s Lincoln Square shop, who also gave her a discount, Nelson was able to stretch the donated funds to buy a pair of parkas, gloves and socks, and still have money leftover. But how to get the items to the couple, the nature of whose plight meant they had no fixed address?
Nelson turned amateur sleuth, keeping an eye on Facebook for any sightings and also touching base with employees at CTA stations the couple typically frequented.
An “angel” at the Western Brown Line station, who’d been tracking the couple’s movements, took Nelson’s number and called her when the pair — named John and Mary — turned up at the Rockwell platform.
“She introduced us and I said, ‘There’s a lot of people in the neighborhood worried about you,’” Nelson said. “[Mary] was crying. She said they love the neighborhood and how generous everyone has been.”
The story could end here, with Nelson gifting the couple new coats and walking away. It doesn’t.
Thrown In The Deep End
Out of respect for the couple’s privacy, Nelson hasn’t pried much into John and Mary’s story, but she has learned they lost their home in May, and they’re petrified of shelters, out of fear of being separated from each other and their remaining possessions.
What John and Mary need, more than a coat on their backs, is a roof over their head. Setting the couple on the path to housing is Nelson’s next step.
Homelessness is a complex situation requiring a complex solution. Nelson realized she was out of her depth — she’s a retail store manager, not a social worker.
“I don’t know what I’m doing, I’ve never done this before,” she said.
Just as she began to feel overwhelmed by the obligation she’d assigned to herself, she was pointed in the direction of North Center’s Common Pantry. As of this writing, Nelson was working to coordinate a meeting between John and Mary and the pantry’s program manager.
Stories like John and Mary’s haunt Margaret O’Conor, Common Pantry’s executive director.
“I can’t even conceptualize,” she said of the couple’s ordeal.
The elderly are among our society’s most vulnerable members for a variety of reasons, O’Conor said, including skyrocketing medical costs, the curtailing of pensions and other retirement benefits, and a lack of affordable housing.
A quarter of Illinois’ senior citizens live below the poverty line and what’s troubling to people like O’Conor is that the number of elderly is growing.
According to the National Institutes of Health, over the next 20 years, the growth rate of the older population is going to be nearly double what it is today.
Chicago is no exception: In the 2010 Census, the city’s population of residents 65 and older was 277,000; by 2025 that number is projected to reach 388,000.
“This is exactly who we need to be concentrating on,” said O’Conor. “This is something that isn’t going to go away.”
While there are rapid response services to assist seniors, and the elderly are typically fast tracked for housing, seniors tend to be too scared or proud to ask for help, O’Conor said, and often their social networks are so limited, they’re unaware of available resources.
When seniors are placed in housing, that often means moving to a neighborhood that’s foreign to them — removed from their doctors, their friends, their routines — potentially landing in areas that lack services or are food deserts, said O’Conor.
“They’re thrown in the deep end,” she said. “That’s part of the problem with not having affordable housing in every neighborhood.”
What does this mean for John and Mary?
“We’ll do the best we can,” O’Conor said. “But they have to be willing to accept services and recommendations.”
So this tale’s happy ending remains up in the air. But for Nelson, her faith in humanity has been affirmed.
“I just feel like in a big city, the fact that everyone came together, it means we can all do something,” she said.
Advice For Good Samaritans
We asked Diane O’Connell, community lawyer with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, for advice on how best to assist neighbors like John and Mary.
For immediate shelter, she recommended calling 3-1-1 to see if the city can match an individual with an opening.
The challenge with shelters is that in the case of couples like John and Mary, not all are set up for married people, and many aren’t designed for people with mobility issues, O’Connell said.
Pacific Garden Mission, for example, one of the largest shelters in the city, requires people to be fully ambulatory, capable of climbing stairs and hauling their own bags. “It’s unconscionable that should be a barrier to getting help,” O’Connell said.
Of primary importance, she said, is connecting individuals with a service provider, where they can be assessed for permanent housing. There are fewer than a dozen agencies in Chicago that handle assessments, click here for the list.
The Department of Family & Support Services operates six community service centers (which also serve as warming and cooling centers). These centers provide information on a range of resources related to housing, food, employment and more.