Quiet and peaceful–that’s about the only way to describe the corner of Carpenter and Polk on a sunny summer day.
Four guys stand on the corner making goo-goo eyes at a baby in a stroller. Some old people sit on their stoops. A fire fighter sits outside a submarine sandwich shop, eating Italian ice. It’s only a few blocks from the Eisenhower Expressway and the University of Illinois, but the hustle and madness of the city seem many miles away.
“It’s a beautiful neighborhood all right–just as long as you don’t challenge people,” says Catherine “Cat” Hunt, a social worker. “That’s the lesson I learned about that neighborhood. It’s one I won’t forget.”
In January, Hunt and several other missionaries opened an emergency housing shelter for homeless youth at the church on the corner.
In April they closed it. They had to. After nearly five months of vandalism, taunts, and other acts of intimidation from their neighbors, they felt they had no choice.
“We got tired of the struggle,” says Hunt’s husband, Ken Mitten, who occasionally volunteered at the shelter. “How can you ask people to stay at your shelter if there’s a threat of violence?”
It’s hard to get the locals’ point of view. None of the people identified by Hunt and Mitten as community leaders could be reached for comment. Residents randomly interviewed on the street didn’t want to talk about the shelter.
“What shelter?” said one fellow interviewed outside the church. “I don’t see a shelter. Do you?”
This is only one of several recent struggles between housing-shelter operators and residents in neighborhoods from Uptown to Pilsen. In each case, local people have complained that the homeless are dirty, disruptive, potentially violent, and a liability to property values.
“They urinate in the street and in the hallways,” one shopkeeper recently told the West Side Times newspaper about some people at a shelter in Pilsen.
“Some of them come in to drink a cup of coffee, others just to talk,” a restaurant owner told the paper. “They spend two to three hours drinking a cup of coffee, and then they leave without paying.”
Such hostilities could not come at a worse time. Over the past few years, the number of decent affordable housing units has gone down: the federal government has slashed housing programs, and the city has allowed private developers to demolish some of the few remaining single-room-occupancy hotels. Meanwhile the number of homeless has gone up–to as high as 100,000 in Chicago, according to some estimates. “We’re facing a crisis in affordable housing,” says Mitten, “whether we want to admit it or not.”
Hunt’s contribution toward easing the crisis was to help establish a shelter for homeless youth.
“The idea came from the people who run the Agape House,” says Hunt. “That’s a nondenominational campus ministry center [affiliated with the University of Illinois] owned by the Lutheran church. The word comes from the Greek word for unconditional charitable love. I had experiences running food pantries and working with teen shelters, so they asked me to be the codirector.”
The center was to be in the basement of the Agape House church, which is on the northeast corner of Polk and Carpenter.
“We wanted to open to kids between the ages of 18 and 25 says Hunt. “They’d sleep on pullout mattresses we’d put on the floor. We’re talking about two blankets, a sheet, a pillow–maybe two for a slow night. We’d have some Bible studies, arts and crafts, a little TV, maybe help with homework. We’d have volunteers who were affiliated with Agape House. I never thought it would be too much of a problem.”
Technically, it was an emergency housing shelter–open only during the winter months–so they didn’t need city permission to operate. And there might never have been any protests if the Agape people hadn’t told residents of their plans.
“It was Frank Anderson’s idea to spread the word,” says Hunt, referring to the Lutheran minister who runs the Agape House. “We wanted people to know about us because we didn’t want to surprise. We had nothing to hide. We wanted to be good neighbors.” So they organized a meeting in November 1989.
“About 35 people showed up, and they just blew me away,” says Hunt. “I mean, the reaction was incredible. First of all, they had this notion that we were going to run a drug-rehab clinic. I don’t know where they got that, but it was totally false.
“There was this one guy, he was a lawyer. He was a really well dressed guy, and he was acting like the leader. You could tell he was used to being treated like a big shot. He gave a speech about how the people in the community had suffered enough. He said, ‘They lost most of their community when the University of Illinois and the expressways were built. Now all they want is to be left alone so they can die in peace.’ He said, ‘Take your shelter anywhere but Agape House.’ He said, ‘I’ll help you find the real estate. I’ll write you a check for $5,000.’
“I said, ‘I don’t want your check.’ For one thing, I can’t run a shelter on $5,000. For another, I wanted to stay at Agape House–we were getting it rent-free.”
The meeting lasted for almost two hours, Hunt recalls, and representatives of both sides lost their composure.
“The lawyer kept flapping his jaws so finally I told him, ‘Sit down and shut up, and let someone else have the time to talk.’
“Then I said, ‘Are you Catholics here?’ And they said yes. So I said, ‘Well, what about the fact that the Son of God had no place to lay his head?’ That must have really got to the lawyer, because he stood up and said, ‘Don’t you try to out-Christian me. I’ll out-Christian you any day. Do you know how much money I give away?’
“Another guy said: ‘You have a big heart. I know you would probably take them all in if you could. But we don’t want them here.’
“And another lady said, ‘We’ll take in senior citizens.’ I’m all for helping seniors with housing. But we have to help the young people, too.”
The vandalism started within a few weeks of the meeting, says Hunt. Someone threw a rock through the front window of the church, she says, with a note that read: “No niggers allowed.” The tires of Anderson’s car were slashed when it was parked outside the church. So he rented a car while his own was being repaired. Its tires were also slashed–this time while it was in the garage of his suburban home.
“On New Year’s Day they superglued our front-door lock,” says Hunt. “That’s a real pain. You have to call in a locksmith to take out the whole lock. They did that to us three times. Actually, by the third time, Frank knew how to fix the lock himself. He didn’t even have to call a locksmith.”
On January 2, 1990, the shelter officially opened.
“We never had more than 20 people in the shelter,” says Hunt. “We did have a couple of problem cases. There was a mentally deficient young man who stayed with us. He walked into a store across the street and just stood there; he wouldn’t leave. They called us, and we moved him to a different shelter.
“We had another guy who was a gang member, and we kicked him out. I told the residents, ‘I know how to run a shelter. If anyone is causing problems, he’ll be removed. And we won’t just dump him into the street. There will be a police car waiting for him.’ We believe in discipline. You help the kids when you discipline them. Lights go out at 10:30. They don’t complain. They want structure.”
During February, the vandalism stopped. Then it started up again. The front-door lock was super-glued for the second time. Eggs were tossed at shelter residents. In March, Hunt herself was hit with an egg.
“I heard a noise on the front step and I went to investigate,” says Hunt. “It was close to bedtime. I was not out there for two minutes when an egg came flying. It hit me dead center in the forehead. Whoever threw it had great aim.”
Shelter residents told Hunt that some local residents were verbally harassing them.
“Not everyone was hostile,” says Hunt. “There was this one guy who sat on the front steps. When I came, he looked at me real tough and said, ‘You got a problem with me sitting here?’ I said, ‘No.’ And then we started talking. He said, ‘You got brass balls, being here.’ Then he said, ‘If you need any help, knock on my door ’cause I have enough guns to win Armageddon.'”
On April 15–Easter Sunday–the locks were super-glued for the third time.
“That’s when we decided to leave,” says Mitten. “We figured, why put the clients through this kind of pressure? It just wasn’t working.”
The young people were placed in other shelters, and on April 21 the Agape warming shelter officially went out of business.
“We host different kinds of groups, including AA,” says Reverend Dave McGowan, who works at Agape House. “We don’t get any hassle over that. The AA people are basically white middle-class. I guess that has something to do with it.”
As for Hunt, she and her husband hope to open another shelter next winter. “We’re looking on the north side,” she says.
“This is what we believe in,” Hunt adds. “My favorite passage is in Isaiah. It says that if you spend yourself in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness and your night will become like the noonday. This experience hasn’t turned me off at all. If anything, all of the abuse only made us mad. We were right. They were wrong. We were helping people. We were not infringing on anyone’s space.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.