by Doug Van Ramshorst, Outreach Director
At one in the morning we took refuge from the cold in a seedy little all-night dive that serves Pakistani food to cab drivers. Andy and I discussed my feelings of uselessness over a platter of chicken biryani. I know that it is worthwhile for us to be out every night, but after a couple of long, cold shifts of seeing no one out on the street, it is tempting to go out and get a normal job. We cleared our trays as the Al Jazeera newscast squawked in the background, and headed out, despite the looming sense of futility that hung around us like a stench.
Standing in the entrance, we added a few layers of clothing and braced ourselves for the nine-degree weather. On nights like this we sit on a stoop until we can’t feel our feet and then we walk around the block to get the blood moving through our bodies again. Stepping outside, we thought we saw Travis, one of our older clients, cross the street two blocks ahead. “Oh man, if we could just talk to him for thirty seconds tonight, that would make this a great night,” Andy said while I nodded my head in agreement.
We picked up our pace a bit and tried to nonchalantly “bump into” him at a contiguous intersection, but as we rounded the corner Travis seemed to have disappeared. We walked around the neighborhood for about an hour to no avail before retiring to our stoop. After only 15 minutes, we were already starting to lose feeling in our butts when I said, “Okay, let’s go home.”
Andy and I walked to the van but were interrupted by a tall man in a colorful ski jacket. It was Travis. With a smile and a couple of handshakes Travis brought us up to date on how he has been for the past few months. It was good news for the most part. He found a room for rent in a quiet neighborhood a few miles from downtown and he picked up a job as a temp for a company in the Loop. The pay was decent, but he couldn’t get enough hours to afford much more than just his rent. It was Tuesday night, he wouldn’t get paid until Friday, and he was hungry. Without many other options, Travis returned to the survival tactic that he knew best, which was why he was walking around on Hubbard Street at two in the morning.
I sensed Travis’s ambivalence about being in this neighborhood, so I offered him a ride home. He told me that he was hungry and that he was hoping to stay out long enough to scrape up some money for groceries. We started to part ways, and I clicked the unlock button on the van’s remote. Travis suddenly turned around and let us know that he decided to take us up on that offer after all.
On our way to Travis’s neighborhood, we drove through McDonald’s and bought him a big meal to hold him over well into the next day. We wrote up a list of social services, churches, and pantries in his area that could help him with groceries and other needs until he could get some more hours at his job. Even after we arrived at our destination, Travis continued to talk.
“You know, if I stayed out there any longer I would have ended up making some money hustling. And I know me. Yeah, I would have bought a little something to eat, but then I would have felt bad about what I just did, so I would have gotten high. I am one hit away from losing my job and my apartment. I am not that secure yet. I could be back out on the streets real quick if I messed up like that again. I don’t know why you guys were out there in this weather, but I sure am glad that you were.”