“Hey, man, what’s up?.” The men look up and greet Jack Graham as he walks along Lower Wacker Drive. Dressed in a dark suit with pinstripes, a pale shirt, and a tie with tiny embroidered eagles, Graham doesn’t quite fit in.
“Man, I can’t believe you’re still here. Get out of here!” Graham yells at one as they embrace roughly.
Some 20 men surround Graham. They’re happy to see him.
“Come by the van at eight o’clock,” Graham tells them. “And we’ll fix you up. Remember, eight o’clock.”
Even in his wrinkle-free duds and tortoiseshell glasses, Graham seems at home with these men. That’s because Graham knows what it’s like to live on the streets.
After working for six years at the Cook County Correctional Center Graham found himself on the streets with a back injury and no savings.
That winter, in 1990, he checked into a shelter at 515 S. Cicero but decided he wouldn’t stay long. He took classes at Trainco, the now-defunct truck driving company, to get a job as a driver. (“A really stupid thing to do if you have a bad back.”) The classes were held at the same times that the shelter served breakfast and lunch. Graham argued for two weeks with the shelter’s management before they agreed to leave sandwiches out for him.
Then, in February 1991, a spokesman for Homeless on the Move for Equality (HOME) came through the shelter talking about empowerment, and Graham got hooked.
For much of HOME’s three years Graham has manned the phones by day at its office, at 13th and Wabash. At night he prowls the streets to find out the needs of the homeless.
As a nascent nonprofit organization, HOME has only just recently been able to pay Graham a salary. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless gave HOME its start by letting the organization share its office space. Besides Graham, HOME’s only staff are the volunteers who show up.
For the past two years Graham, along with a couple from Naperville and the Inner Voice Homeless Shelter, has combed Wacker Drive, Union Station, and the streets underneath the el, doling out donated sleeping bags to the homeless. Graham knows many of them, having met them when he was living on the streets or in shelters. They are always glad to see him.
We arrive in two teams below Wacker Drive not far from the Central Police Auto Pound, at 300 E. Randolph. It’s close to 8 PM. The Naperville couple pick up Graham after he talks with the men. Their station wagon is packed with sleeping bags. Workers from Inner Voice arrive in a rusted Ford van. As men appear from behind columns and steel beams and from under cardboard boxes to get sleeping bags, reporters also arrive.
Graham grumbles before being interviewed. “At least I’ll get to smoke,” he says as he lights up upon leaving the Naperville couple’s car. When he returns to the car, he is asked what he said. “The same old shit,” he remarks.
“To prevent people from freezing to death, it’s just a Band-Aid approach, blah, blah, blah.” In all, some 200 sleeping bags are given out that night. But more men continue to arrive and are disappointed that the supply has been exhausted. The reporters ask about the number of cold-related deaths.
“I really don’t like this,” Graham says after the reporters and the men leave. “If we get some media attention, that’s fine. But if it becomes more important than what were supposed to be doing, that’s when there’s a problem.
“I’m always asked ‘How does this make you feel?'” he says in a mockingly perky reporter’s voice. “As if I’m supposed to say it makes me feel great. It disgusts me that this is being done.”
For the past three years Graham has joined a bus caravan, coordinated with groups working on homeless issues from all around the state, to Springfield in May to storm the Capitol. The first two times they refused to leave until the governor met with them–which he did. This year they decided to concentrate on lobbying legislators for a $2 million increase in funding for emergency food and shelter.
In 1992 they asked Edgar about getting voting rights for the homeless and told him their concerns about the Earnfare program, which Graham says “only sets people up for more failure.” The $154 in cash plus $111 in food stamps per month is not enough to rent an apartment or buy lunch or get to and from work, he says. And the benefits stop after six months.
“The theory being that the employer is supposed to love you so much that they’ll hire you,” Graham says. “As if an employer is suddenly going to hire you after you worked for them for free.”
During the summers Graham works with storefront churches and shelters to register the homeless to vote. They have registered some 800 people in the past three years. He concentrates on registering people who live on the west and near south sides.
Often there’s a sweaty preacher, squeezed between the tables or pews, belting out a sermon while Graham smokes and talks loudly over him, urging people to sign up and vote.
In an attempt to illustrate how the legislative process shuts out the homeless, Graham ran as a Democrat in the 17th Legislative District in the March 1992 primary incumbent Lee Preston and Democrat Carol Ronan, who later won.
“I used a mailing address in the 17th District and made no bones about the fact that I was homeless at the time. I fully expected to be challenged, since you have to live in the district for two years. Well, I wasn’t. I was an actual candidate. Then I had to figure out what the hell to do.”
Graham fully expected to lose, but his candidacy helped keep homeless issues in the political arena. On December 1 last year Illinois became the first state in the country to pass an act that allows the homeless to vote and list a shelter, church, or relative as an address.
And each week Graham returns to the shelter that first housed him to inform the homeless on legislation and get ideas and feedback. “I understand people on the streets. The shelter network is designed to keep you from dying, not get you back into real living. Most people who leave poverty do just that, leave.
“It’s difficult for me to go back to the shelter system. I don’t want to be there,” he confesses. “I don’t jump for joy when I walk in the doors. It reminds me of the lowest point of my life that I want to forget and I want others to forget.”
But Graham doesn’t let it show. He reminisces with the men about staying at the shelter and the hard-nosed, no-nonsense woman who runs it. “Now don’t let her catch you lyin’,” he starts out before changing into a stern high-pitched female voice. “‘Don’t tell me nothin’, boy, I’ll put you out on the curb.'”
Then he imitates an old-timer who frequents the shelter and doesn’t like a guy with a chip on his shoulder. “Now, look here, I been comin’ to these shelters longer than you were born, boy, I’ll knock you outside.” The men in Graham’s audience laugh and slap him high fives.
Last Thanksgiving Graham got a call from the Clinton administration. “Yeah, right,” was his response when he received a message that a representative from the transition team had called the HOME office asking for him.
“I have to get some sweet potatoes for my sister,” he told them. “I know what’ll happen if I don’t get sweet potatoes–I won’t get any sweet-potato pie and my sister will kill me. I know what will happen with the Clinton administration, we’ll talk and nothing will happen.”
Graham and representatives from 31 other advocacy groups for the homeless across the country were flown to Little Rock for a roundtable discussion. (Each organization paid the airfare of their own representative.) Clinton’s team agreed to work on a homeless package and present it to Congress.
Graham was one of two individuals there who had experienced homelessness. As usual, other people were surprised. “I always get ‘But you’re so articulate, how could you be homeless?’ It’s assumed I’m supposed to be ignorant just because I’m a black man who can string sentences together.”
Unfortunately, homelessness hits the African American community–particularly black men–hardest. Thus they are associated more as victims rather than activists on the forefront of the issue, says Graham, who also points out that many black elected officials shy away from the issue for fear of losing prestige if they align themselves with the poor and powerless.
Last January, the Clinton invited Graham and other representatives of the homeless to the inauguration–at $125 per ticket. Graham eventually drove down with another HOME activist and attended the Homeless Ball, an alternative inaugural event sponsored by the D.C.-based Community for Creative Nonviolence. They also sneaked into the Illinois delegates’ party and, when Graham told people that they represented HOME, they were met with “What the hell is a homeless advocate doing here?”
“I appreciate that our folk were invited and they’re listening. But what’s important is that change occur. I’m not doing this because I’m a humanitarian, I’m only doing this because it’s necessary. I could give a shit about people, I really don’t like being around them.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.