By Grant Pick

Jim Parker enjoys his pipe so much that it rarely leaves his mouth. Once he was a cigarette man, but as his life took a turn for the worse he resumed pipe smoking, an old habit. “With a pipe people don’t bum cigarettes off you, and the tobacco is less expensive,” he says. “It’s cheaper all the way around.”

A thin, longhaired man in an orange vest, Parker is tidying up the parking lot behind Hyde Park’s Harper Court. He has a broom, a long-handled dustpan, and a 40-gallon barrel on wheels. Few people walking to the Harper Court restaurants for lunch look his way, but a woman asks if he’s ticketing cars at expired parking meters. “That ain’t my job,” Parker tells her.

His job is that of street cleaner, and he’s glad to have it. Nine months ago Parker was homeless, but an Edgewater-based organization called Breakthrough Urban Ministries has given him a chance to earn a small salary while getting counseling, housing, and perhaps some religion and new respect.

“People have these preconceptions about the homeless–that they’re largely bums–but we’ve found that they want to work and stand on their own two feet,” says Arloa Sutter, Breakthrough’s executive director. “It’s good for the community to see that.”

Jim Parker and ten other men participate in a Breakthrough program called CleanStreets. Most were formerly homeless, though some are state “earnfare” workers, on the conveyor belt from welfare to work. The men get paid $6 an hour for part-time labor, plus bus fare. “The money is not really enough to live on, but it’s enough to get a room,” says Sutter. “It’s a stepping stone to a living wage.”

The street cleaners’ day begins with an 8:30 AM devotional session at Breakthrough. The half-hour Bible study isn’t mandatory, says supervisor Eddie Sturgis, “but we encourage individuals to seek the Lord.” Then comes a class in plumbing, carpentry, floor care, and other maintenance tasks beyond street cleaning. They’re also schooled in conduct. “These men are in the public eye, and we encourage them to be courteous and respectful,” says counselor Bob Cornelius.

At about 9:30, the men, in teams of two, head off with their equipment to the commercial strips and lots where Breakthrough has contracts–including Clark Street in Rogers Park and Andersonville, Argyle Street in Edgewater, a Harris Bank branch in Uptown, the Methodist Home (a nursing home and social center in Edgewater), and East 53rd Street in Hyde Park.

Though it takes him an hour and a half to reach 53rd by CTA from Breakthrough’s offices at 5249 N. Ashland, Parker doesn’t seem to mind. “A factory pays a better wage,” he says. “But there are only a few people to see and talk to in a factory–on 53rd Street the whole world is before you.” Parker picks up trash along 53rd Street between Woodlawn and Hyde Park Boulevard, being careful not to miss the Harper Court parking lot and the horseshoe drive in front of the shopping center. In winter there’ll be salting and snow shoveling to do.

Parker, who’s 49, is emerging from a blue-collar slide partly of his own making. For 13 years he was a lithograph operator for a company that printed bottle caps. “But then the plant closed,” he says. “My brother-in-law and I opened a shop that sold bows [and arrows] in Joliet. When he died, I worked for an outfit that made ducts for McDonald’s restaurants, and then they laid off everybody. I got a job working for a liquor store in Melrose Park, but they fired me for drinking.”

Last September a jobless Parker took a sleeping bag into the Schiller Woods forest preserve at Cumberland and Irving Park Road. He trapped squirrels with his bare hands–“I’d feed them with one hand and catch them with the other”–and skinned and cooked the carcasses. Once, he says, he killed a deer by hitting it between the eyes with a hatchet. Through other drunks who lived in the woods, he picked up the occasional odd job. “I loved it out there,” he says. “I loved the woods.”

His idyll ended last November. His parents had asked for help from his old boss at the liquor store, who retrieved him and brought him to Breakthrough. It’s an offshoot of the First Evangelical Free Church next door.

Breakthrough was founded in 1992 by Sutter, the wife of the pastor then. It offers shelter, food, and laundry to homeless people willing to set some goals–such as getting drug and alcohol counseling or looking for work. At Breakthrough, says Parker, “I found the Lord, which has helped me stay sober.” He swears he hasn’t taken a drink in months. Abandoned by his wife ten years ago, he now occupies a studio apartment that Breakthrough rents for him in an Uptown residential hotel for a third of his $240-a-month salary. He buys his own food, tobacco, and movie tickets. “I’m saving up for tools to make new furniture,” he says.

CleanStreets began when Jan Baxter, manager of a 15-store cooperative called the Landmark of Andersonville, suggested to Sutter that her homeless men clean a messy stretch of Clark Street. The program grew by word of mouth. The South East Chicago Commission and the Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce had been troubled by the condition of the curbs and sidewalks along 53rd Street. “On any busy street people are slobs with their cigarette butts and trash, and Hyde Park has a worse problem than other areas,” says Irene Sherr, the commission’s business-district coordinator. Hearing about CleanStreets, Sherr raised $13,500 from 53rd Street retailers. They say they’re pleased with the results.

Breakthrough’s efforts have even suited the persnickety Ken Pelletier, owner of the Mellow Yellow restaurant, who believes that street cleanliness is next to godliness. “For 22 years I’ve been out there picking up garbage two or three times a day,” he says, “and it’s a never-ending battle–the debris that people put down is forever. But these guys from Breakthrough are out there every day, and it’s a big improvement.”

The Breakthrough cleaners–there are 50 or so a year–remain faceless entities to some contractors while developing relationships with others. Sherr has noticed an increased self-assurance in Parker. But no contractor has hired a cleaner, and in time the cleaners tend to vanish back into the city. “Most of these workers, with their drug and mental-health problems, are in transit,” says Bob Cornelius. “They are with us for a while and then they disappear, and we don’t keep in contact with them.”

Once in a while there’s a success story. James Locke, who was once a city Aviation Department laborer but was a homeless junkie by last January, followed what he calls the “tramp trail,” shifting nightly from shelter to shelter for a month until he landed at Breakthrough. Soon he became a Hyde Park street cleaner, and now he’s a Breakthrough graduate hired as a laborer by Blue Cross-Blue Shield and intent on studying computer programming. “I’m so grateful for a second chance,” he says. Robert Willingham, another 53rd Street alumnus, has landed a position as a nurse’s assistant at a nursing home.

John Donahue, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, has suggested that other shelters copy CleanStreets. Mayor Daley, on hand when the Hyde Park program was launched, now wants business associations to specify Breakthrough-like cleaning plans in their community-development grant applications for next year. Sherr, who’s thinking of extending her program to 55th Street, purchased electric blue uniforms to give the men an air of professionalism once the weather turns.

Recently Parker received his uniform. “It was very uncomfortable when I tried it on,” he says, puffing on his pipe and scooping garbage from a railroad viaduct into his rolling barrel. “But I’m going to wash it and then it’ll soften up a bit.” He bows ceremoniously to a purple Chevrolet rounding a corner, and looks in the direction of his young partner this day, an earnfare worker who’s moving down the other side of the street. “I’m going to wear that uniform every time I come here because I’m pleased to be here,” Parker says. “This is more of an honor than it is a job.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jim Parker photo by Dan Machnik.