Although Chicago winters are brutal for everybody, they hit the homeless the hardest. Bonnie has been homeless for 8 years, in DuPage County and her native Chicago, and recently had her backpack stolen. She had four blankets in there, to wear in addition to her multiple shirts and jacket. That was right on State Street, where she has been sitting out tonight for 2 hours and has made $1.45.
“Have a great night, enjoy your weekend!” Bonnie makes a point of never directly aggressively asking passers-by for money. “I don’t want pity money,” she says. Her cardboard sign reads, “Homeless single mom trying to get a room + meal, Please help $22 will get a room! Thank you + God bless you!”
Some of the shelters she uses are Casa Central Shelter, Thresholds, Grace Place, and Safe Haven. Bonnie says that homeless people should stay away from Pacific Garden Mission in the South Loop – a place notorious for assault, theft, and mandatory Bible study. Many of these organizations have street teams that walk outside looking for homeless people to invite to warming centers. They also offer food, blankets, and “goodie bags” of basic essentials like socks and toothpaste.
Last winter Bonnie stayed at O’Hare from January to April. “They were actually very kind,” she says, provided that the homeless people there followed the rules and kept themselves clean (one of the biggest difficulties of living on the street.) Laughing, she told me that she had scabies that year and locked the door to an O'Hare bathroom so she could take a bath -- sneaking some well-deserved, necessary self-care time. She has also slept in police stations and hospitals overnight.
Money is not the only difficulty in finding a shelter for the night. Bonnie said, “It’s really unfortunate, but there aren’t many rooms for women. There are more for men.” One of her main priorities in finding a place to stay is keeping her 11-year-old daughter safe. Her name is Alexis and “she’s the light of [her] life.” She never takes Alexis out with her when she tries to gather money because, as she says, “Some people exploit their children that way.” On the night I talked with her, Alexis was staying with her grandmother.
Bonnie’s faith in God has kept her going through the years. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2009 and has since had 9 surgeries. The doctors originally gave her only a year to live. “I gave it all to God. I don’t know if you believe in God, but I sure do.”
She told me, “A lot of people think we did this to ourselves, and that it will never happen to them... You wouldn’t believe how many homeless people there are in Chicago. And they [other people] look at you like you’re dirt under their shoe.” Bonnie is currently applying for government disability payments. But until then, she is unable to work and lives on the streets. She survives through her own perseverance, ingenuity, and the charity of others.
“I would love to work. I would love to work. It’s really hard to sit out here.”
If you or someone you know needs help staying warm on the streets, call the Illinois Department of Human Services at (800) 843-6154. You can also dial 311 to request a ride to a shelter or neighborhood warming center.