This story is part of a package on homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic. Click here to read the accompanying piece.
For the past five years, I’ve been documenting homelessness and some of its causes. I’m not a social scientist. I use a camera and a voice recorder. Among the many homeless people I know who stay in downtown Chicago, not one has shown symptoms of COVID-19. Of course, they could be carriers, and on any given day they could get sick. But, so far, no one. I’ve asked people who stay on the street if any of their friends or acquaintances have been sick from the virus. They’ve all answered no. We don’t know anyone, they tell me.
I received word from one of the local street medicine groups that I work with that a couple of the unsheltered people they visited recently, not from the downtown community, had shown symptoms of the virus. However, the people showing those symptoms were not tested; there were no test kits available. Did they have the virus? No one knows for sure.
I recently talked about the virus and photographed four people who are homeless and live on the street or in the depths of Lower Wacker and other subterranean streets. These are people I’ve known for years, people who I try to help out when I can. They tell me about the lives they lead in the “Underworld.” For some, when they walk up the stairs onto the downtown streets, they enter the world “Up Top,” the world of sunlight. Up Top is where the regular working people are. It’s where the Underworld people hustle to make enough money to get through a day.
The homeless people who I know have not practiced social distancing, have continued to smoke snipes (other people’s cigarette butts found on the streets), do not regularly wash their hands, and have demonstrated a cavalier attitude about health concerns. They claim that they’ve built up their immune systems because of everyday exposure to the difficult conditions affecting their lives. They have not seen or heard much of the news, and many have missed the precautionary measures that the rest of us see every hour of the day.
His name is John, street name Moe. His cat is named Lazy. John sits on the corner of Lake and Michigan (photo above). Hundreds of people used to walk by him every couple of hours. Today, I counted three people walking past in the 20 minutes we spent together. They gave John and Lazy a wide berth.
“We’re here, on this corner now, all by ourselves. We are not in contact with regular people walking by anymore. So the virus is not around us. I don’t know anyone who’s sick. I take care of Lazy, try not to let her near too many people. I watch her close so that she’s not breathing anything in.
“The pigeons are fleeing Lower Wacker and coming Up Top now. They’re getting attacked by the rats down below because there’s no working people spilling food or throwing food into the garbage.
“These pigeons have nothing to eat anymore. So I’m tossing them bits of leftover cat food. Yeah they’re eating cat food. They never used to do this before. There used to be just a few of them here but people would walk by and scare them off. Now there’s only me, Lazy, and the pigeons. One thing I’ve noticed in the last couple of days is the seagulls that land on the sidewalk. The seagulls joined the pigeons and they all fight for food. I’m thinking what in the hell are the seagulls doing on this sidewalk over here? I never saw them at this spot before. Everything is changing. I don’t know what it all means. It’s kind of scary.”
I made an emergency food run for a few people who needed it. Jimmy was one of them. I kept a distance and dropped off some supplies, including a notebook so Jimmy can write about the virus, a couple of fresh cigarettes, a jar of peanut butter, a jar of jelly, and a loaf of white bread: Jimmy likes PB&J sandwiches.
My friend Jimmy lives downtown in an alley. He’s got a flip phone and texted me one morning when COVID-19 first impacted Chicago and businesses began to shut down.
“Yea it’s slow down here. People already think we’re full of disease. Now we are looked at as walking, sitting, time bombs. No one is giving nothing. We got to figure out how us homeless can receive something from the government . . . we Americans too.”
A few days later I photographed the pages in his journal.
“My memory is getting bad. 2 days without food or nothing else, just some coffee and cigarette butts to smoke. Everyday seems the same. The city is dead, are we next? I thought about jumpin off the roof of a building I know I can get into. But I don’t have it in me. It’s serious, people see me and walk way around me. Writing in this notebook makes me realize how repetitive my life is. Same shit different day. I know this much . . . it’s gonna be a different world when this is over. This ‘distance’ thing is gonna last a long time.”
Stacey lives with her partner Greg and their cat Simba along Lower Wacker. Stacey woke up one morning to the sound of city workers delivering a washing station to her encampment.
“I was barely awake and they just said, ‘Keep washing your hands.’ That’s what they told me. As they were leaving they said, ‘You’ll get more information Thursday.’ Thursday is the day when city sanitation workers, with a police escort, come down to Lower Wacker and clean things up. Sometimes they do a power wash, sometimes a trash pickup. People that live in the Underworld must be in their camp, standing next to their belongings, or the city workers will throw all of their possessions into a trash truck. No questions asked, everything you own is suddenly gone. You’re done!”
Stacey and other homeless people who I talked to knew very little about the pandemic and coronavirus. “The news I get about anything is when I’m out on the street hustling and people walk up to me and say, ‘Keep your hands washed or you’ll get sick,'” Stacey said.
I talked with her man Greg on the street earlier that day. Greg told me, “The only news I hear about is from reading the captions off of the TVs I walk past that are in the windows of bars and restaurants, but they’re all going to be closed now. Sometimes people tell me things about the news. You just told me it’s all over the world. Jesus! No, I never talked about this with any other homeless people that I know. It’s like the flu, I heard. What I do know, for sure, is that there are fewer people walking downtown today.”
A few days later Stacey told me that things are changing. “I’m hustling on the street now and the few people that are out are talking to me now, they’re friendlier,” she said. “These are some of the people that walk by me every day, everybody was in such a big rush to get their train. Now, they’re asking me how I’m doing. I’m OK, I tell them. I ask them how they are because I know that everybody is hurting, some more than others. City workers came back down to us and dropped off a portable toilet. It was like Christmas. Wow, a toilet at our camp. All we had before was a white plastic bucket.”
Tay is an artist. On the streets he tries to sell his drawings of iconic Chicago landmarks to passersby. He’s usually successful, but now the streets are empty.
“The last two or three days we’ve had very little food. People aren’t coming down here anymore. They’re afraid because of the virus. Monetarily, I make my money hustling my art. So, the more people that are out on the street the better are my chances of selling my art. All it takes is for one person to make my day. But with no people around we are all getting desperate. The virus intensifies the desperation. The streets yeah, it’s so bad. It’s unalive now. I can’t get past how surreal it all is. I keep thinking it’s got to be a bad joke. I hear homeless people talking under Lower Wacker and they’re saying it’s like the zombie apocalypse. I tell them don’t be talkin’ that shit now.
“As much as I don’t like being around hordes of people, I learned that I can do some necessary thinking just walking amongst the city’s residents. Now, I feel out of place seeing downtown like it is. I have no words to describe what I’m thinking. All I see are stragglers going . . . wherever.” v