Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: Primitive cubicle hotels can be lifesavers in brutal cold

By Mark Brown, Columnist

For the last four years, Christ Bobis stayed in the basement of an otherwise unoccupied building in Little Village with no running water or heat except from a space heater.

When the building’s electricity went out over the weekend, rendering the space heater useless against the subzero temperatures, the 77-year-old Bobis was in trouble.

He turned to his friend, Kyriakos “Carl” Damianides for help. Damianides, owner of the Sky-Ride Tap in the South Loop, turned to the place around the corner, the Ewing Annex Hotel, in search of a room for Bobis to stay.

Some of you may remember that about this time a year ago a few Chicago aldermen got the idea they should close the city’s last two surviving cubicle hotels, including the Ewing, because of the primitive accommodations, which include chicken wire serving as the ceiling over the tiny rooms.

They said it was for the good of the residents, naturally, not that anybody had bothered to ask the residents for their opinion.

The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless had other ideas, forcefully making the case that these places, bleak as they may appear, were all that stood between hundreds of men and life on the streets.

The aldermen backed down, which is why I am pleased to report that Damianides was able to rent a room at the Ewing for Bobis for the next couple of weeks to save him from this cold.

Even at that, Bobis got one of the last rooms available. The Ewing Annex has been operating at or near its 210-bed capacity since the temperatures plunged weeks ago, said the hotel’s manager, Michael Bush.

Many of those who would normally prefer to tough it out on the streets than find shelter have chosen to take refuge in the Ewing’s $15 a night rooms this past week rather than risk death or frostbite in the dangerous cold.

“Thank God for places like this. You saved a life yesterday. That’s how I see it,” Damianides told Bush when he topped by to check on Bobis Tuesday while I happened to be visiting. Bush had earlier told me the story of the two men.

We should also be thankful for big-hearted people such as Damianides, who told me he has been looking out for Bobis since meeting him on the street three years ago.

Damianides, who has operated his bar at Clark and Van Buren for forty years, said he was crossing the street one day when he heard someone speaking in Greek and turned to see Bobis, who told him he hadn’t eaten in 10 days.

Damianides took him to Maxim’s for a meal and has been lending a hand ever since, providing Bobis with clothes, sleeping bags and the space heater among other things.

Just last year, he helped Bobis, who came to New York as an illegal immigrant from Greece in 1966, obtain a Social Security card and a green card to legalize his status.

With Damianides translating, Bobis, who speaks little English, told me he came to Chicago some 30 years ago.

“He says, ‘Tell him I was never begging. I always worked,’” Damianides said. That included washing dishes, bussing tables, odd jobs, paid in cash. I’m not sure where it went wrong for Bobis. As far as I know, he just outlived his money.

“Very good friend. Very, very good friend,” Bobis said in English as he put his hand on Damianides shoulder, while standing next to a small table covered with medicine for his heart condition.

I think Bobis is too proud to consider himself homeless, but from his description of where he was living, he sure wasn’t far from it. He said he had the building owner’s permission to stay in the unfinished basement, but hadn’t seen him in two years as the water, then the gas, and finally the electricity was shut off. Sounds like an abandoned building to me.

Damianides said that when Bobis came to see him Monday, he “looked like he was gonna drop’’ from the stress of fighting off the cold.

With a night in a warm bed behind him, Bobis looked restored.

“I would be gone if this wasn’t here,” he told me.

That’s why the cubicle hotels were worth saving.

Christ Bobis 77 had no place turn when temperatures plunged electricity went out unheated basement where he was staying. His

Christ Bobis, 77, had no place to turn when the temperatures plunged and the electricity went out in the unheated basement where he was staying. His friend rented him a room at the Ewing Annex, one of the city’s last cubicle hotels. “I would be gone if this wasn’t here,” Bobis said./Mark Brown/Sun-Times