Health and Science

Homeless Chicago couple chooses streets over shelters

By Adrienne Hurst

Geronimo Lightfoot has a home. It’s between two concrete pillars underneath the Illinois Center on Michigan Avenue; a cozy nest of blankets, paper bags and empty cans of Natural Light.

The 54-year-old endures Chicago’s biting winters in the wind-sheltered underpass of Lower Michigan Avenue. Though this one’s coming to an end, he’s kept warm using the few amenities his monthly disability check affords him—a result of kidney failure that happened two years ago—and the occasional hand warmers donated by volunteers and passersby.

And another thing: love.

“Yeah, I came out here for my boyfriend,” Joyce Wiggins, 62, said with a grin.

Wiggins and Lightfoot met 10 months ago at Four Winds Casino in Michigan, where Lightfoot was spending an evening away from the elements and Wiggins was enjoying a night of gambling. She didn’t live on the streets at the time, but she “wasn’t doing much” back home in Ann Arbor, either. “I was living with my cousin, babysitting and house-sitting,” she said. “I followed [Lightfoot] here.”

The couple is in good company beneath Chicago’s bustling shopping district. Their echoing underpass is sprinkled with tents and piles of blankets sheltering dozens of the city’s homeless. It’s warmer here than on the streets above, where winds faster than the speed limit can make wool coats feel almost futile. It’s an area volunteers and employees at the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS) know to scrutinize during their biennial point-in-time (PIT) count of the city’s homeless population.

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Lightfoot, left, and Wiggins relax in the underpass they call home. Adrienne Hurst/MEDILL

Lightfoot and Wiggins weren’t around for this year’s count. They were resting on the Red Line, sleepily following its path from Howard to 95th Street and back again. “The train’s got heat, so that’s better than being out here,” Lightfoot told me, rubbing a leather-gloved hand on his knee. “You just gotta stay alert for pickpockets.”

On just one night in winter 2014, city employees and volunteers counted 6,294 homeless individuals while scouring the streets and city-funded homeless shelters. Nearly one thousand were sleeping outdoors that night in around zero degree weather.

A five-month-long winter

The Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office measures the beginning and end of winter by a grim criterion: hypothermia body count. It’s a season flanked by the first and last cold-related deaths. This winter began on Nov. 20 when 52-year-old David Powells, a homeless man, was found unconscious on Chicago Avenue. The combination of acute alcohol poisoning, hypertensive cardiovascular disease and cold exposure proved fatal.

By the medical examiner’s standards, last winter didn’t end until April 3, 2014.

“The interesting thing is that we usually see most of our hypothermic patients in the emergency room during October, and then during April, May,”said Dr. Jeffrey Schaider, chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at the Cook County Health and Hospital System. “You wouldn’t expect it, but think about it: It’s early May, late April, fairly warm out. You lie down on a park bench, dressed in a t-shirt. You have too much to drink and you fall asleep. It starts to drizzle; it gets down to the 40s. Your body temperature will drop pretty quickly in that situation.”

I wondered why many displaced people continue to sleep on Chicago’s trains and underpasses even with shelters available. On Thursday, Jan. 22, a week before I met Lightfoot, I followed DFSS employees for this year’s federally mandated PIT count.

Tallying the displaced

Chicago is one of 414 U.S. Continuums of Care (CoC)—regional or local planning bodies in charge of directing homeless services—that conduct a biennial PIT count. According to an August 2014 analysis by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, the number of Chicagoans without permanent housing could be as high as 138,575 when those living temporarily with family or friends are included.

From 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. that Thursday, I watched as John Pfeiffer, DFSS First Deputy Commissioner, knelt with a pen and clipboard before men and women wrapped in layers of blankets. He asked if they would be willing to answer a few survey questions: how long they had been homeless, whether they dealt with substance abuse or mental illness, and other questions. The questions are intended to capture a “snapshot” of Chicago’s homeless population, which will ultimately help direct federal funding when the data is released this summer.

Many were asleep in tattered tents along the fringes of Lower Wacker and Lower Columbus Drive. DFSS employees tapped at the tarps of their residences in an attempt to wake them up, many times apologizing and explaining the purpose of their visit. Some of those residents became audibly upset; others were either too intoxicated or delirious to provide coherent answers. Irritated by the crowd of reporters and city employees, one man agreed to speak only if someone purchased a copy of “StreetWise” from him.

Disturbing some of Chicago’s most vulnerable residents to ask about their lives felt tense. Despite their good intentions, DFSS workers were dismissed by some who were trying to sleep or otherwise maintain privacy.

I went back to Lower Wacker and the people sleeping on Chicago’s wintry streets one morning in February, when they would be awake and more willing to talk. That’s where I met Lightfoot and Wiggins.

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During the winter months, some of Chicago’s homeless seek refuge on public transportation. Adrienne Hurst/MEDILL

‘I had nowhere to go’

Lightfoot hasn’t set foot in a shelter since last winter, he told me. He spent most of his time outdoors before becoming homeless, working in construction and eventually quitting to become a live-in caretaker for his father who had Alzheimer’s disease. When his father passed away two years ago, “I had nowhere to go, so I ended up in shelters,” Lightfoot said. But incidents of theft and bed bugs eventually led him back to the streets.

Lightfoot is faring better this season than he did last year. Winter 2013-2014 was Chicago’s coldest on record, and during one of its bitterest days, Lightfoot passed out on State Street.

He asked a postman to call 9-1-1 as soon as he came to. Lightfoot knew that progressive loss of consciousness can signal severe hypothermia, a condition that contributed to the deaths of 32 people in Cook County last winter. About one-third of them were homeless, according to the medical examiner’s office.

“We see them all the time in the emergency room,” Schaider said.

The Chicago city government funds 10 emergency shelters with a total of 581 beds—places to sleep for 12 hours or less—and 41 interim shelters with 2,708 beds, places to stay for longer periods and receive housing services. That number doesn’t include independently funded shelters like the Pacific Garden Mission, Chicago’s largest and longest-running shelter, where more than 1,100 homeless men, women and children sleep during the winter.

Despite the shelters that are in place, last year’s PIT count found 16 percent of homeless Chicagoans living on the street. DFSS employees and volunteers provided those individuals with directions to the nearest shelter as part of the count process.

But “even during the polar vortex, we had people who did not want to come in,” said DFSS spokesman Matt Smith during this year’s count. “They might have taken blankets, they might have taken coffee, but they refused” to visit a shelter.

Pfeiffer listed a general distrust in institutional care as a possible factor. “Mental health is probably the biggest issue,” he said. “Or perhaps they’ve been abused in a shelter before. They might have had a bad experience.”

Lightfoot put it this way: theft is unbearable when all you own is on your back. He said he experienced that on more than one occasion at the shelters. “When you have that bad taste, you don’t want to go back,” he said.

“And I can’t deal with bed bugs,” Wiggins added, shaking her head in disgust. Living with Lightfoot, she’s never stayed in a shelter. “I can’t deal with bugs of any kind.”

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A Chicago flag near the Illinois Center flutters in the wind. Adrienne Hurst/MEDILL

Winter isn’t over—but this year’s ‘a cakewalk’

Although Lightfoot applied for low-income housing in December, his application fell through due to high demand, he said. He’ll try again soon. But until then, he and Wiggins have a routine in place for the colder days: They spend their mornings in the Harold Washington Library, afternoons in the Barnes and Noble on Jackson Boulevard, and nights on the red line.

“Last year, it was rough,” Lightfoot said. “I seen guys who totally lost their toes. But this year?”

He paused to gesture at the concrete substructure of Michigan Avenue above him, beyond which a February sky was beginning to blanket the city in more than a foot of snow. It was the first blizzard of the season and the fifth heaviest snowfall in city history. Directly above us, the city flag by the Illinois Center writhed in nearly 40 mph winds.

”This is a cakewalk,” Lightfoot said, cradling an unopened packet of Hot Hands in his lap. He threw his head back and laughed. Wiggins laughed, too.

Photo at top: Tents equipped with brooms and fold-out chairs line the sidewalks of Lower Wacker. Adrienne Hurst/Medill

Museum of Science and Industry celebrates Pi Day

By Shanley Chien

Pie lovers and math enthusiasts unite! The Museum of Science and Industry is celebrating Pi Day this Saturday by giving away a free slice of pie or pizza to the first 314 attendees to arrive.

“The [museum’s] food court will typically have three or four selections of toppings and we’ll have dessert pies like coconut cream,” said Beth Boston, communications manager at the museum.

Guests will receive a voucher at the ticket stand and can redeem them at the museum’s Brain Food Court on the lower level.

The mathematical constant pi (π) is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter and that approximate value is 3.141592653. As an irrational fraction, decimal representation is never-ending.

That’s why Pi Day is celebrated every March 14, and this year is particularly special because it marks the next two digits in the constant’s succession: 3.14.15. (If you’re especially enamored, don’t forget to set your alarms for 9:26:53 a.m. and p.m. so the date and time represent pi’s first 10 digits.)

Boston said attendees can complement their math-themed day by visiting the museum’s new permanent exhibit: “Numbers in Nature.” The exhibit explores numerical patterns that are seen in the natural world, such as the golden ratio in spirals, Voronoi diagrams in cracks, and fractals in snowflakes.

The highlight of the exhibit is its centerpiece “Mirror Maze,” which features an 1,800-square-foot hallway of mirrors. The maze is designed with repeating equilateral triangles and mirrored walls to give it the appearance of infinite hallways.

Children explore the Mirror Maze in the Museum of Science and Industry’s new 1,800-square-foot permanent exhibit. (Museum of Science and Industry)

“By showcasing that fascinating numerical patterns that are all around us, we hope that both kids and adults alike will become inspired to discover more about how math, as a part of the STEM fields, is a strong and important presence in our daily lives,” said Kurt Haunfelner, MSI’s vice president of exhibits and collections in a press release. Stem fields cover science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

While some mathematicians, like University of Chicago math professor J. Peter May, plan on staying at home and proving theorems for Pi Day, others will take advantage of the homophonic pun and indulge their sweet and savory tooth.

“My family usually celebrates Pi Day by baking pies: pumpkin pie, apple pie, chicken potpie, etc. We typically invite some friends over or do a potluck type of thing,” said Dustin Belt, math lecturer at Northwestern University. “It is fun for the kids because they get to eat pie, and we talk about why on earth mommy and daddy are letting them eat so much dessert.”

But as much fun as it is to consume pie, Belt said it’s also important to take the day to appreciate the importance of math.

“We talk about the number pi, and that the day is also a fun way to remember about how math in general affects our lives in little and big ways everyday,” he said.

The Museum of Science and Industry is located at 5700 S. Lake Shore Dr. and is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Photo at top: Pi Day Pie (Tarehna Wicker/Flickr)

In Nicaragua, improving respiratory health starts at the hearth

By Bryce Gray

Inside Felipa Del Carmen’s tin-roof, dirt-floor home in Nicaragua, piles of wood stand at the ready to keep an indoor fire burning. The mother of six says that a number of her children have battled pneumonia that required treatment at Clínica Verde, a nearby non-profit clinic.

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A traditional indoor cook fire fills the home of Felipa Del Carmen with smoke. (Bryce Gray/Medill)

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VIDEO: Chicago organization repairing deformities, changing childrens’ lives

By Julie Woon

Kassy Preciado is resting in an extended stay hotel as she begins to heal. Last week, she underwent the final surgery in a three-step process to have a large birthmark removed at Comer’s Children’s Hospital at the University of Chicago.

The five-year-old patient had an unsightly birthmark, known as a congenital pigmented nevus, which covered almost the entire length of her right arm.

“It was a black birth mark with a lot of hair. It looked like a monkey and was bad looking,” Preciado said.

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Eating disorders can eat away your body

By Priyam Vora

Eating disorders take an enormous toll on your body – not only draining weight but impacting the bones, heart and other organs.  Between 5 to 20 percent of people who develop the disease eventually die from it, according to WebMD. Continue reading

Mental health advocates protest lack of care in poorest neighborhoods

By Meg Anderson

Just weeks before the April 7 run-off election, mental health activists rally at the mayor’s office Tuesday to denounce the shortage of clinics in high-need areas. Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed six of Chicago’s 12 mental health clinics in 2012 to consolidate care and balance the budget. Although the City says it is now better serving those with psychological disorders, activists say many in the affected neighborhoods are going without care rather than traveling to other clinics.

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Wikipedians are Editing the Gender Gap

By Lucy Vernasco

If you walked by room 613 at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago’s Flaxman Library on Saturday, you heard the sounds of furious typing and laughter as a diverse group of students and Chicago residents discussed feminism and the internet. Continue reading

Illinois remains lethargic on medical marijuana

By Ezra Kaplan

Marla Levi is a 52-year-old Chicagoan with multiple sclerosis. With the support of her doctor, she applied and was accepted into the state-funded Medical Cannabis Pilot Program. This means that she qualifies and has a medical need for medical marijuana. It has been nearly three months since she got her papers but she has yet to fill the prescription.

The law that allows medical marijuana also stipulates that it must come from the state. But Illinois hasn’t grown any marijuana.

Sound like a Catch-22?

It is.

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Bipartisan drug proposal garners praise from drug professionals

By Dani Anguiano

Drug policy experts and substance abuse professionals have called for strong action to tackle heroin abuse as well as expressed optimism about a $25 million legislative package to be proposed by Illinois lawmakers.

House Democratic Assistant Majority Leader Lou Lang, (D-Skokie), and state Rep. John Anthony, (R-Morris), recently announced their plan to propose legislation that will address what health-care professionals describe as a heroin epidemic. The legislation would require, among other things, the development of a drug prevention program for schools, the establishment of a medication take-back program, and increased access to drugs that fight heroin overdoses.
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GMOs: The scarlet letters of the grocery aisle?

By Shanley Chien

You walk down the aisles at Whole Foods spotting milk, cookies, pasta, and a variety of other products with the “Non-GMO Project Verified” label. The label tells you the foods don’t contain genetically modified organisms  – GMOs.

But the image of a butterfly sitting on a blade of grass shaped like a check mark subconsciously reassures you that this product is “safe.” After all, if it’s safe enough for a butterfly, it’s safe enough for you and your family. You put it in your basket, perhaps because people like Dr. Oz and food blogger Vani Hari of Food Babe tell you GMOs are unhealthy.

GMOs add to the nutritional value and preservation of foods and most scientists vouch for their safety. But critics abound.

“We have the whole government working against us,” Hari said in an interview on the Carolina Connection Talk Radio. “They don’t want Americans to figure out that these could be causing health issues, that they haven’t been tested, and they are increasing pesticide and herbicide use.”

Organizations and advocacy groups such as the Non-GMO Project, Dr. Oz, Food Babe, and other anti-GMO crusaders say GMOs are unnatural and unhealthy, according to their websites. Continue reading