There is no official list of homeless deaths in Chicago. But, for going on 10 years, a coalition of service providers and advocacy groups has tried to make sure those lives are recognized.
By Mark Brown, columnist
Robert Rohdenburg and Robert Whited are two of the people I normally might have expected to see at the Chicago Homeless Persons Memorial this Tuesday evening at Old St. Patrick’s Church.
The two men overcame homelessness and became eager advocates for others in their situation, finding purpose in their lives by volunteering in support of affordable housing efforts.
Unfortunately, instead of joining in the prayers this year, Rohdenburg and Whited are among the dead who will be recognized at the annual service that seeks to honor the homeless men and women who lost their lives in the previous year.
There is no official list of homeless deaths in Chicago. But, for going on 10 years, a coalition of homeless service providers and advocacy groups has gathered whatever names and information they can find to make sure those lives are recognized.
The names are read aloud. A candle is lit for each.
It can be a haunting ceremony, especially coming during the Christmas season.
It’s also an important reminder that the people we call “the homeless” are really a collection of individuals from different backgrounds and with different challenges, not unlike the rest of us.
I met Rohdenburg in 2013 when the Chateau Hotel in Lakeview was in its death throes.
The Chateau was one of many North Side single-room occupancy, or SRO, hotels bought by developers over the past decade and remade into upscale apartments for young professionals…
… Though their backgrounds were different, Whited’s story had similarities to Rohdenburg’s. He’d been homeless, living on the street or doubled-up with friends, for many years, that is when he wasn’t detained at the Cook County Jail on minor offenses.
Whited had substance-abuse issues and health problems that included diabetes. He also was dealing with complications from a bad case of frostbite.
Last winter, he got involved through the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless in a group working to improve the situation of individuals re-entering the community from jail or prison.
Like Rohdenburg, Whited threw himself at the chance to make a contribution, accompanying the group on four trips to Springfield to lobby legislators. Unlike most people placed in that situation, he wasn’t intimidated, either.
“The moment he saw a legislator, he just ran to catch up with them,” said Bisma Shoukat, an organizer for the coalition.
Whited even chaired the last meeting he attended with the re-entry group.
“You could just see how excited he was to be a leader,” Shoukat said.
… As the two Roberts remind us, every life deserves recognition.