Are they newspaper vending machines? One stands alongside a Trib and a Sun-Times box, but its tiny storage space is bereft of newspapers, filled instead with candy wrappers and empty juice bottles.

Are they billboards, maybe? Some of them invite us to try WXEZ and a Big Mac, but that can’t be their only purpose–surely it’s against the law to place a simple billboard on a public sidewalk.

So what are they, then?

“They’re homeless shelters,” says Chicagoan Terry Durkin, applying a fresh coat of paint to a shelter at State and Madison. “Earlier this year I gave some thought to starting a newspaper. I was going to call it the Chicago Observer, Chicago Observed, something like that. Then, something happened–call it divine inspiration if you will. It struck me that it would be just as civic-minded and more profitable–I mean, socially speaking–to use these boxes as a means of advertising–I mean, advertising to millions of downtowners every day that the homeless problem is real, these people exist, they’re not going to go away.”

Despite the controversy Durkin has generated, his efforts have left at least one Chicagoan very impressed. Ernie Jackson, who, though homeless, is able to raise a few dollars from time to time working as a sandwich-board man in the Loop, moved into a shelter at Clark and Randolph streets a few days ago and feels right at home there. “It’s a little tight around the shoulders,” says Ernie, pictured above, “but it sure beats sleepin’ under a mess of newspapers.” Amen to that.