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Change to Spare? Change a Life: Being Homeless in Chicago

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Craig Key, 50, is homeless. He grew up on Chicago’s south side in the Lakefront and Rainbow Beach area. Three weeks ago, after governmental grant money was cut, he was laid off from his job at the Chicago Park District.

He was first hired there in December 2009 after being put on work release from prison after serving three and a half years for drug-related charges.

Key has been to prison nine times, serving a total of 27 1/2 years.

Since he was laid off, Key has spent each day panhandling on the 100 or 200 block of South State Street in the Loop. Some days he begs in front of McDonald’s or Subway; other days, he is in front of CVS. At night, he sleeps in a basement on 72nd Street for which he does not pay rent.

According to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, from September 2010 to June 2011, 93,780 people in Chicago were homeless. CCH reported that 38,591 of them were single adult men and women.

Every night, Key takes the CTA Jeffery Express to the basement, where he spends the night in the company of four or more other homeless men.

The number varies nightly; the basement is a home for, “Anybody that wants to get warm,” Key said. The windows are sealed with plastic in an attempt to keep the cold air out since the basement is not heated. A cord from a neighboring building streams in electricity. The men often use some money they begged for each day to chip in and buy cans of vegetables and beans to create a one-pot meal for everyone. A woman who lives nearby occasionally brings leftover food for the men.

In the basement, Key washes his clothes in a bucket. It reminds him of his past years in jail, he said, when he would wash his clothes in a toilet.

“With homelessness comes crime,” Key said, and it has been his goal to turn his life around and to prevent any illegal activity from occurring in his makeshift home.

Recently, one of the men wanted to rape a girl in the basement.  “Hell no, man!” Key recalled saying, as he kicked the man out. On another occasion, someone tried to bring stolen merchandise into the basement, Key said he and others objected.

Key has been surrounded by crime his entire life, he said. Each time Key has been released from jail, he has felt the need to steal to help get him back on his feet, he said. Upon his release from jail in December 2009, he said, he realized that acting upon these instincts to steal would only send him back to the penitentiary.

“I’m 50 years old. If I go back because of drugs or stealin’, I wouldn’t be gettin’ no 10, 20 years, I could be gettin’ 30,” he said. After being released this past time, Key is trying to break his lifelong cycle of going in and out of jail. “If I don’t, I’ll be another statistic,” he said.

During his 27 years in jail, Key lost almost his entire family. The reality of the deaths set in when he no longer received money, holiday cards or letters in the mail while in prison, said Key. When he was released, he said, no one was there to throw a celebration. Only his sister was alive, and she did not live in Chicago.

For three months, Key joined A Safe Haven Foundation located at 2750 W. Roosevelt Rd. Key said he was fed well, had clean clothes and showers. Key said he left the foundation because he was unable to meet their housing requirements. From there, he went back to the streets.

A Safe Haven does not accept threatening offenders or criminals into the program, said Brian Rowland, chief executive of the foundation. His staff assesses entering members for four months in an attempt to stabilize them. Additionally, the staff tries to match them with the best-fit housing and employment.

Currently, two housing facilities offer 340 and 500 apartments. The foundation is in the process of creating four new housing facilities. Two buildings will be for veterans and the other two will be affordable apartments. A Safe Haven serves 4,000 people per year and provides an average of 1,200 meals for its members per day, Rowland said.

On his own, Key receives around $15 to $20 per day panhandling. That money covers food, toiletries, a bus pass and any other daily needs.

“There are mostly nice people in Chicago,” he said, “A lot of people are willing to give to the homeless.”

Lenrow Felton, 21, a freelance photographer and 4th-year student at Columbia College Chicago, said he is willing to give spare change to the homeless. If Felton does not have any extra money left when passing a panhandler, he said he’ll say, “You just missed it, man. Sorry about that. God bless. Keep your head up.”

Marshall Wilder, 21, a full-time student at Roosevelt University, said he usually feels bad for the homeless. He experiences, “A certain level of remorse,” when passing a homeless person. “I justify it with the fact that everyone has different chances in their life. Maybe he blew his…but I feel sorry.” Wilder is willing to pass along any extra money he may have. “A dollar means way more to them than it does to me,” he said.

Rather than giving monetary donations, sometimes people will offer food to panhandlers. When workers in the nearby buildings in the Loop have office parties, for example, they will sometimes bring leftovers down to Key and the other panhandlers on the street.

If Key had to choose between being in jail where he was given food, showers and warmth in the winter, or panhandling on the street, Key said he would prefer to be on the street. He said he values his freedom.

“You never know how much you appreciate somethin’ ‘til you take it away,” he said.

Key said he is most concerned with finding a job. During the years Key has prided himself for keeping in top physical condition so he can take on any job that is offered to him.

Having spent more than half of his life behind bars, Key admitted he was forced to humble himself and panhandle for what he needs now and later, he said. The money and donations he receives on any given day are not only put toward what he will need then. He saves, budgets and plans for his future needs. If he had stayed on the same track he had been for his whole life, he would already be back in jail, he said. “I went in dirty, now I’m trying to come out clean.”

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