Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: Interesting people live in city’s cubicle hotels

BY MARK BROWN, Columnist

Resident Robert Koester 65 outside his room Ewing Annex Hotel. The hotel 422-426 S. Clark is one last two cubicle
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When people in power start saying stuff like “nobody should have to live like that,” those who are living like that know to be on guard against something bad headed their way.

And so it is happening again here with a group of Chicago aldermen who say they want to close the last of the city’s cubicle hotels, best known for the chicken wire ceilings above the tiny stalls that serve as rooms.

Naturally, the aldermen say they are doing this for the sake of the men who live in these hotels, only two of which remain, the Ewing Annex Hotel at 422-26 S. Clark and the Wilson Men’s Club, 1224 W. Wilson.

That’s very considerate, except the aldermen never actually talk to the residents, men like Jimmy Baker, 70, a musician who lost most of his fingers to frostbite on the streets many years ago but still occasionally performs a nighttime lullaby for his fellow guests on the blues harp.

“They don’t realize how important these places are,” Baker told me one day last week at the hotel in between reminiscing about performing with James Brown, Smokey Robinson and Sunnyland Slim.

No, the aldermen never stop to truly contemplate why men land in a place like this or where they will go when such places are gone, it being a virtual certainty that a portion will end up homeless and that some will die on the street some future winter night.

Of course, they also never really make it a priority to provide better housing in which these men could afford to live — or the men who will come after them.

At the suggestion of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, I spent some time getting acquainted with residents of the Ewing Annex, located above a pawn shop on a seedy stretch of South Clark Street across from the Metropolitan Correctional Center.

I met men like Robert Koester, 65, who grew up on 24th Street near the jail and estimates he’s lived 15 years total at the hotel. About one-fifth of Ewing Annex residents are senior citizens, according to a survey conducted by the coalition. At least 60 percent are above the age of 50.

Koester used to support himself selling this newspaper. Before that, he held jobs at manufacturing plants that no longer exist. He wound up living on the streets, and although I never did ascertain the source of his personal slide, being out of work never helps.

Koester keeps his 5-by-7-foot cubicle tidy. There’s room for a cot along one wall and his meager belongings, including a 15-inch flat-screen TV, against the other. He wears headphones to keep the sound from drifting through the chicken wire.

“I drink my beer and watch television,” he tells me. As to where he would go if the hotel closes, he says: “I wouldn’t know.”

Tyrone Boulware, 55, thinks he knows what will happen to many residents if the hotel closes.

“They’re going to put a bunch of people in the street for no reason at all,” Boulware said. “A lot won’t have no place to go.”

Boulware spent 15 years in the Army. About 25 percent of Ewing Annex residents are veterans.

“I worked until I couldn’t. Then they replaced my hip,” said Boulware, who has lived there four years.

Rooms at the Ewing rent for $15 a day, $90 a week or $300 a month. Boulware pays with his income from Social Security disability, as do half of the Ewing’s residents.

“Everybody in here ain’t completely sane, but everybody in here ain’t completely crazy,” he said. “We’re like a family. We may be a dysfunctional family, but we’re a family.”

The dysfunction could be drug or alcohol abuse, mental illness, a criminal record, a combination thereof or nothing more than poverty. Many Ewing residents hold jobs, decent jobs in some cases, but may choose to stay here to keep up with child support.

I met a lot of interesting people. I’ll introduce you to more of them later this week.