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Home sweet home for the homeless

For thousands of Chicagoans "living outside," for better or worse, home is still where they make it.

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Jimmy, 49, once owned a home, a truck, and his own flooring business. But the economic crisis and substance abuse left him homeless, living in a tent in Rezkoville. - LLOYD DEGRANE
  • Lloyd DeGrane
  • Jimmy, 49, once owned a home, a truck, and his own flooring business. But the economic crisis and substance abuse left him homeless, living in a tent in Rezkoville.

A fort constructed of mattress box springs and tree branches woven together; a plastic sign from a salon serving as front door; an elaborate warren of cardboard boxes; an open-air living room with an overstuffed couch; a journal and toiletries arranged neatly on the concrete barrier beneath a highway overpass; Christmas ornaments and tiki torches decorating trees around a tent patched up with duct tape.

The dwellings of Chicago's "homeless" reflect just how much effort and creativity people put into making "homes," whether they're tucked beneath viaducts, sheltered under trees, obscured behind electric boxes, or hidden in plain sight in downtown alleyways.

These homes lack some of the bedrocks considered most sacred in America: legal ownership, privacy, stability, and the conference of social status. But the diversity and utility of the structures and spaces cobbled together by many of the approximately 6,000 Chicagoans who are chronically homeless—"living outside" as many describe it—also reflect cutting-edge social and architectural concepts.

These are "tiny houses" that make creative and efficient use of space while consuming minimal resources. Discarded materials are reused and recycled. Existing features like trees, bridges, and concrete pipes become part of the structure. People share and work together in tight-knit communities. They are urban gardeners, foragers, crafters, and artists.

Many of the dynamics and challenges faced by home owners and renters also play out in "homeless" neighborhoods.

There are trade-offs between convenience and comfort. Countless leafy vacant lots and abandoned buildings are available on the south and west sides, but many choose to live on Lower Wacker Drive or sidewalks and nooks in the Loop to be close to prime panhandling turf and social services.

Those living on Lower Wacker and highway underpasses are constantly exposed to harmful diesel emissions and loud noise, just like the many front-line environmental justice communities located alongside Chicago's freeways and railroads. (Meanwhile residents of Lower Wacker have an extra respiratory problem: pigeon guano dust that swirls in the air and piles up on every built surface.)

Gentrification and development also affect homeless communities. For example, since last summer, new construction has meant scores of people evicted from a tent city along the river south of Harrison Street and from Rezkoville, the 62-acre formerly wooded parcel south of Roosevelt Road.

Homeless communities are often just as segregated as Chicago neighborhoods too. Homeless encampments are often all African- American or made up entirely of young white suburban heroin users—the new face of homelessness.

But some clusters of homeless people are strikingly diverse, and the level of cooperation and solidarity necessary to survive presents a sharp contrast to the many Chicago apartment buildings and residential blocks where people don't know their neighbors and rarely interact.

Living outside—in a tent or shack, on a bedroll, under a bridge, or behind a barrier—is hardly an ideal existence. It means a constant risk of displacement, derision, violence, exposure to the elements, and environmental pollution, not to mention the toll of mental illness, substance abuse, and other problems that led people to become homeless in the first place.

But the ingenuity, fastidiousness, pride, and resilience that are poured into creating homes in the most undesirable and transient of places asks one to reconsider the very meaning of a "home."  v

This project was supported by a grant from the Social Justice News Nexus at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University.

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