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Home at O'Hare

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On Saturday night O'Hare is more like a ghost town than the world's busiest airport, so it's easier to spot the homeless who, like death and taxes, will not go away. They doze here and there on lounge seats, huddle in corners and bathroom stalls, or wander around aimlessly. Not many are here this evening--only 29 according to the nine o'clock count by staff members from Haymarket House: 17 in Terminal Two, 12 in Terminal Three. They don't check Terminal One or the international Terminal Four anymore because, says one of the staff, "you don't hardly ever find them in there."

Haymarket House, a near-west-side detox and addiction-treatment center, and the Chicago Christian Industrial League (CCIL), a near-south-side shelter, have a one-year, $880,000 grant from the city of Chicago to move the homeless from O'Hare to more suitable locations. Complaints have been mounting for years against the people who live at the airport. As a spokesman for Mayor Daley's office put it, a traveler "should not have to encounter a person taking a sponge bath in the bathroom." Nor should travelers be solicited for money or yelled at, city officials contended. They frequently noted the 6,000 arrests at O'Hare for crimes ranging from assault to petty theft during the first nine months of this year (a 10 percent increase over 1989), even though the homeless were responsible for only a small portion of them.

Haymarket House began its work in July, operating out of two offices in the O'Hare terminals and sending staff members on regular patrols to keep tabs on the homeless and, more important, to convince them to move into more stable quarters. Thus far, according to the Chicago Department of Aviation, more than 300 people have left the airport in favor of city shelters. A substantial part of the grant money has been spent on an expansion of the CCIL facilities, including 100 new beds with adjoining lockers.

But tracking the homeless is no easy task. Some enter a shelter for a while, then just disappear; others jump from shelter to shelter. And for many, O'Hare holds a magical charm. Just when it seems they have been satisfactorily placed somewhere else in the city, they are discovered back at their favorite haunts in Terminal Two or Three--and the relocation effort begins all over again. As a result, the 300 figure includes a lot of duplications and errors. It is never quite up-to-date. Despite the best efforts of Haymarket House, nobody knows how many still consider O'Hare home sweet home.

So the pressure was stepped up when city aviation commissioner Jay K. Franke (at the behest of Mayor Daley) ordered all unauthorized personnel out of the terminals between midnight and 5 AM. On the first night of the crackdown, October 27, 42 people were hustled out and sent to a shelter or detox center, and 6 were arrested. On the second night 27 vagrants left, and there were no arrests. Each night since, a few have agreed to the shelter alternative; others board the CTA for a long, dark ride. The next morning most are back.

9:30 PM. "I don't think we'll ever get them all out," says Carmello Vargas, as he makes his way through the terminal on this quiet Saturday evening a week after the lockout started. "Some are happy here--genuine street people. They don't want to go to a shelter." Vargas is the 46-year-old assistant director of emergency services for the city's Department of Human Services. He has been coming to the airport for several nights to assist the Haymarket House staff and to offer medical care or a bed to anyone willing to vacate the premises.

Vargas, who was born in Puerto Rico and lives in the Humboldt Park area, is a low-key, unassuming man. By now he knows many of the homeless by name and chats with them like an old friend. "I'm losing weight on this job," he says. "I must be walking five miles or more a night." He is accompanied tonight by Joan Fabiano, a DHS social worker whose specialty is the aged.

9:50. "Come on, George. Come on, wake up," says Vargas to a man curled in a lounge chair. "You know you got to be out by midnight."

"Yeah, yeah," says the man, opening only one eye, "I know, I know."

"See that fellow over there," says Vargas, pointing to another man sitting at the far end of a row of seats. "He's been taken to a shelter three times, and here he is again."

10:10. Vargas sees an unfamiliar figure, a blond, bearded, middle-aged man sprawled in a chair. He looks like he's good for the night. "Excuse me, sir," says Vargas. "What is your name?"

"Uh, Joe," says the man.

"Listen, Joe," says Vargas. "We can get you a place in a nice shelter--good bed, good location."

Joe is unimpressed. "If you took that $800,000 you people got," he says calmly, "and divided it up among all the people here, we'd all come out ahead."

Vargas and Fabiano laugh. Joe does not. "It's not my money," says Vargas, "and anyway, you gotta be out by 12."

10:20. In Terminal Three, Vargas and Fabiano chat with Laura Benson, who has established herself in a kind of suite of lounge chairs in the waiting area and appears comfortably set for the rest of the year. She is drinking iced tea (with a slice of lemon) from a long-stemmed wineglass and finishing up a patternless crossword puzzle, a dictionary at her side. "Mr. Vargas," she says, "I do not approve of the police strong-arming people out of here. It's creating a terrible inconvenience!"

Benson is a neatly dressed, well-preserved woman of 52 who looks and sounds like an English teacher. She maintains steady eye contact in conversation and makes her points with precision and authority. On the carefully arranged chairs around her are bags of apples and oranges, newspapers and a radio, pieces of luggage, an array of glass jars containing snacks, and boxes of pots, pans, and dishes. Behind the glass jars is a vase of fresh flowers. "You need basic accoutrements if you're going to live with dignity," she explains.

Benson has resided at the airport now for almost a year--ever since her north-side apartment was "gentrified," she says, and the rent soared from $450 to $800 a month. "I do not have that kind of money, and I will not live in a shelter where you have to put up with people farting, snoring, taking dope, and acting generally obnoxious."

Vargas speaks of the effort to upgrade shelters for the longtime O'Hare residents, but she isn't buying. "Shelters are filthy, nasty, and dirty. And I will not go there!" She says that at O'Hare she has air-conditioning in summer, heat in winter, clean bathrooms, and plenty of socialization. "I have a CTA pass," she adds. "I get out a lot. I shop at Jewel, go to the laundromat, to the movies--whatever I want."

Benson was arrested the first night of the midnight closedown for refusing to leave the premises and spent the night in a police lockup. "I got out at 7:30 the next morning," she says proudly, "and I was back here by 8:15. The police confiscated a lot of my possessions, claimed they were roach infested. Tell me, you see any roaches around here?"

On this night Benson says she is prepared to depart peacefully by midnight. She will pack everything up on her two portable luggage carriers and wheel them out to the CTA station. "What we do," she says, "is get on and ride downtown and back. The round trip takes about two and a half hours, so two round trips take five hours. By then it's five in the morning, and we can come back in."

"What can you do?" says Vargas, as he walks on. "She has some money, so we tried to get her into an apartment. But she says it has to be north of Fullerton and east of Halsted. I said, give us a break! You want to live on the Gold Coast. People like her aren't dangerous or anything. But did you see all that stuff she's got? I ask you, does all that belong in an airport?"

10:35. Vargas and Fabiano confer with the Haymarket House counselors about the latest count on the remaining homeless. Oddly enough, one counselor claims there are more here now than an hour ago. They awaken more sleepers and talk to a man who speaks only Polish--with minimal results. "If we keep disrupting their sleep," says Vargas, "maybe they'll get the message. Maybe they'll start to think shelter." It is a statement more of hope than conviction.

11:15. Vargas and Fabiano go down to the CTA station and observe some of the regulars already leaving for the night. Vargas is somewhat perplexed by the presence of a spaced-out-looking man with a shopping bag who has just come in on the latest CTA train and is limping toward the terminals. "Excuse me, sir," says Vargas, "but you'll have only about 45 minutes. Everybody has to be out by midnight." The man seems not to hear as he plods on like a wounded robot.

Fabiano notices that a door to a maintenance area has been left open and hastens to alert airport personnel. "Who knows what will happen if somebody wanders in there!" she says. "They might never come out." Indeed, O'Hare, with its many levels, its hundreds of storage rooms, its bewildering labyrinth of maintenance tunnels, could pass as a modern variation on the Paris sewers. One can imagine a vagrant phantom of the opera living undetected in the bowels of the place for years.

11:25. Vargas checks in at the Haymarket House office and learns that so far two people have agreed to go to the shelters. "Only two?" he says. "Well, that's something."

A short, weary-eyed man wearing a long black coat wanders by and looks into the office. In Spanish, Vargas asks his name. "Hitler," he says without emotion. Vargas urges him to talk to the counselors. "We can get you a place to stay," he says.

11:35. Vargas stops at a coffee shop to visit with Grace Schaafsma, who is enjoying a large green Jell-O salad. "I made $17 today hustling carts," she says cheerily. "Isn't that something?" (Returning rental luggage carts to lockup locations is a popular pastime for the homeless, since they earn 25 cents a cart.)

"Very good," says Vargas. "Excellent! I should quit my job and join you."

Schaafsma, a 70-year-old quintessential bag lady, says she has lived at the airport for eight years, ever since she retired as a statistical typist for a railroad. She gets $420 a month in social-security benefits. But, she points out, since she pays $141 monthly for storage of her furniture, including a piano and organ, she doesn't have enough for food, clothing, entertainment, and her own apartment. So she has chosen paid shelter for the furniture and improvised living for herself.

"Oh, it's not so bad," she says, explaining how she has regularly fashioned comfortable beds out of old airline shipping cartons. "They're quite comfortable really."

Since the crackdown, the beds are no longer feasible, and Schaafsma has already dutifully packed her luggage and boxes for another predawn CTA ride with Laura Benson and the others. "We have a good time," she says, finishing her Jell-O. "Some nights there's as many as 20 of us. If they only had bathroom facilities on the trains, it would work out perfectly."

Schaafsma says she has "no one in the world" but insists she is not lonely. "Some elderly people like to crochet and knit," she says. "Me, I like excitement. I like to be on the go."

When a counselor earlier in the week described how her own mother was safe and happy living in a senior-citizens apartment, Schaafsma says she responded, "That may be fine for your mother, but has she ever flown down to New Orleans for the Mardi Gras? Has she attended the opening of the Metropolitan Opera in New York? Has she explored the Mammoth caves in Kentucky? I've done all those things, and I intend to continue." In fact, she notes, she is presently saving money for a trip to Alaska.

"She won't even take a studio apartment, because there isn't enough room for her furniture," says Vargas. "So what can you do?" He cannot vouch for the accuracy of all her claims, but it is clear just from what she says that she is an educated woman who has seen something of the world.

Vargas points dejectedly to her mound of belongings in the corner of the coffee shop. "I just don't think people ought to live this way," he says. "It's not healthy."

11:45. As Vargas makes his way to the CTA station for the final boarding of the unauthorized, a Haymarket counselor runs by. He says that Hitler had agreed to go to a shelter, then just wandered off. "There he is up ahead," says Vargas, pointing to a distant figure on O'Hare's moving sidewalk. The counselor runs on.

Two doped-up or intoxicated young men standing just inside the door of a men's room ignore Vargas's warning about the time. Moments later he speaks to two of the Chicago police officers who are materializing suddenly from all directions. They quickly rout the duo. "Get your ass out of there, and get the hell out of here!" yells one of the cops. The two vagrants meander toward the CTA station, the policemen following a short distance behind. "Watch out for those two," says a policeman who had accosted them earlier. "You can't do anything with them. They came up here from 131st Street--Altgeld Gardens--to look at the airplanes. And they haven't got any money!"

11:50. In the baggage area Vargas runs into a young couple heading for the CTA station. "How's the apartment?" asks Vargas. "You like it OK? Getting settled?"

"Yeah, it's real nice," says the man. "I don't get my check until Monday, so, you know, we came back this afternoon."

"Well, good luck to you," says Vargas, shaking hands with both. They are chronic O'Hare denizens, but he was able to find them an apartment in the past week. Their unexpected presence at the airport doesn't alarm him, since he assumes they came today only to make a little money hustling carts.

11:57. The elevator area near the CTA station has suddenly come alive. Police are milling about, talking into walkie-talkies or staring steely-eyed at the stragglers who are slowly converging on the turnstiles, toting their valuables. Grace Schaafsma shoves a portable luggage carrier piled high with her bags and boxes. She spots an orphaned luggage cart and takes a few moments to return it to a nearby lockup, earning one last quarter. Then she trudges through the turnstile and down the escalator to the platform for another five-hour ride.

Somehow, Laura Benson has packed all her accoutrements onto two luggage carriers. She pushes one, and a helpful man who regularly dwells in a bank of chairs across from hers in Terminal Three shoves the other. "The police are being real nice tonight because the DHS is here," she says in a loud voice. "Otherwise they'd be kicking and shoving us!"

11:59. The last of about two dozen midnight commuters, including the man who arrived only 45 minutes ago, are now waiting on the CTA platform. Hitler is nowhere to be seen. Perhaps the Haymarket counselors have caught up with him, and he's on his way to a shelter. Or maybe he eluded them and will hide in some crevice until a roving police patrol flushes him out. Fabiano comes along with a woman of about 40 who has suddenly changed her mind about the impending CTA journey. "She's agreed to go to a shelter," she tells Vargas.

"Good," he says, checking through his roster of available openings. "We'll find you a real nice place, somewhere you've never been before." She nods. Fabiano goes off to handle the details.

"I'm gonna hang around until about 1:30," says Vargas. "One night last week I stayed until 3. We kept finding more people. Now it's a lot better. A lot better for sure."

12:00. Laura Benson comes up the escalator from the CTA platform to inform Vargas about the problems of one of her fellow travelers. They confer for several moments, and she seems satisfied. Spotting me, she shouts, "If you write a story, don't make us sound like a bunch of raving lunatics!" Then she returns to the platform, gets on a train with the rest, and goes off into the night.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.

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