Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: Living UNDER Lake Shore Drive

By Mark Brown, columnist

Many Chicagoans aspire to an address on Lake Shore Drive. Thousands actually have one.

Robert, Ramiro, Jose, Tami, Steve, Jerry, Jack, Lucy, Greg and “the Cuban” are among the few who reside UNDER Chicago’s signature road.

You can find them most winter days or nights beneath the Wilson Avenue viaduct — their presence one of the most obvious sources of tension in Uptown over how to best deal with its homeless population.

As motorists on the highway above zip back and forth, oblivious to the makeshift living arrangements below, the community under the viaduct makes itself at home on the sidewalks that connect the neighborhood to the lakefront.

This is no doubt a tricky problem for the first-term alderman, James Cappleman, who doesn’t want them there any more than would any alderman, but has to be careful about how he deals with the situation — especially after this past week.

From a homeless person’s point of view, the value of this particular piece of real estate is the same as any other: location, location, location.

It provides protection from the elements. It’s nearby to an extensive network of social service providers. And it’s a highly visible place from which to benefit from the goodwill of Uptown’s historically tolerant and charitable residents, as well as from other good samaritans.

“If you’re going to be homeless any place, I guess this would be the place,” said Tamara “Tami” Walsh, 54, showing off a new outfit of donated clothing that included a pair of designer jeans, a Rocawear ski jacket and furry boots.

Walsh said she has been homeless for 19 months and has spent much of that time right here with her “significant other,” Steve, although she soon expects to get an apartment.

For the previous few nights, Walsh and Steve had been staying with a friend in Rogers Park, but she stopped back Thursday to check on her street pals, who greeted her with hugs and exclamations of “mommy.”

“I’m a legend around here. I’m called Lady on the Hill,’’ said Walsh, formerly of Channahon, where she says she owned a $250,000 home and a summer house in Wilmington “before my old man lost his job.”

The “hill” is what the homeless people call the embankment on the west side of Lake Shore Drive, where they typically move their encampment in warmer weather.

Among those welcoming her back were Robert Zachowski, 57, Taft High School Class of 1974, a former longtime caddy at Ridgemoor and Bryn Mawr Country Clubs, former Tribune delivery truck driver, school bus operator, stockboy, bartender, and on and on.

Zachowski obviously isn’t afraid of work, but has trouble holding a job, which might have something to do with a loud and boisterous in-your-face personality that probably could benefit from medication. But he’s funny and friendly, too.

Zachowski acknowledges that, yes, he’s had four visits to a psych ward, but proudly notes he checked himself in each time. He said friends have told him he’s “classic bi-polar.” In a reflective moment, he says: “I need to calm down a little bit, I know.”

Ramiro Velazquez finished an impressive 160th out of 33,033 runners in the 2004 Chicago Marathon with a time of 2:42:58.

Now he stays under the viaduct whenever he and his wife fight over his drinking, which is often judging by his ruddy complexion.

The wife lives nearby in an apartment on Sunnyside. Velazquez may spend two days on the street, then two days at home, two weeks on the street, a week at home, back and forth, he explains in broken English.

His friend, Nicholas “Jose” Hernandez, helps translate. Hernandez has been under the viaduct about seven weeks. He said he became depressed after his mom died and skipped going to his restaurant job for a week. When he came back, the job was no longer his.

Now Hernandez sits out here drinking beer with Velazquez and talks about how he wants to go back to Mexico. The problem: Velazquez is American, born near Santa Clara, Calif., to a Mexican father and Asian mother.

He says he needs a passport to leave the country, but doesn’t have the money to get one. I’m guessing it’s more complicated than that.

Then there’s Jerry from Poland, who says he speaks no English and looks like he just got off the boat — in 1917 — but sat there doing a sudoku puzzle from the newspaper while I spoke to the rest.

In my next column, I’ll tell you more about the generosity of strangers that makes life under The Drive possible—and drives the alderman to distraction.

Nicolas Hernandez talked about life living homeless Chicago.  Photographed Thursday March 7 2013.| Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-TimesNicolas Hernandez talked about life and living homeless in Chicago. Photographed on Thursday, March 7, 2013.| Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times/ BELOW: Jerry (left) and Ramero Velazquez, who is an avid runner, read newspapers while passing time living outside and homeless in the Uptown neighborhood
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