Entering Chicago’s homeless “underworld” with photographer Lloyd DeGrane

DeGrane talks with Stacey in her home off Lower Wacker Drive during one of his bi-weekly visits. (Caroline Catherman/MEDILL).

By Caroline Catherman
Medill Reports

Photographer Lloyd DeGrane’s homeless friends Greg and Stacey know how to create a welcoming living space.

One of the newest additions to their home is a Black Lives Matter sign that Greg hung on a water pipe. Beside the sign, a half-finished Tom Clancy thriller sits next to a sleeping bag and a worn pair of black sneakers.

DeGrane stops to pet Greg and Stacey’s pet cat, Simba, then gets distracted by a small red box in the corner of the Lower Wacker Drive residence. This box is where the six people who live in this self-dubbed “underworld” can deposit used needles for the Night Ministry to collect. Like many homeless people DeGrane knows, they are addicted to heroin.

“Sometimes when I walk these streets, I think about the [thirty-five] people I know that have died,” DeGrane said. “It’s strange to be able to accept the deaths of thirty-five people, but … after so long, you get desensitized. And maybe desensitized is not the right word. Maybe it’s just accepting that they live dangerous lives, so some of it ends on the street, unfortunately. You can only help so many.”

DeGrane started photographing some of Chicago’s approximately 5,000 homeless people about five years ago, as part of a fellowship from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. His work is featured in the Chicago Reader, New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and other publications.

“I just find [the lives of marginalized groups] kind of fascinating,” said DeGrane. “Their fight to stay alive in this sometimes very cruel, violent world just intrigues me.”

Lloyd’s backpack contains Narcan, clean syringes, a recorder, a camera, a McDonald’s gift card, and cigarettes, which he uses to earn homeless people’s trust. “Newport 100s are the ticket to the show,” he explained. (Caroline Catherman/MEDILL)

For the past few months, the native Chicagoan has documented COVID-19’s impact on the homeless for the University of Illinois Archives. Two or three times a week, he rides the bus to the Loop from the Lakeview apartment that he shares with his wife. Then he walks anywhere from five to eight miles as he collects his homeless friends’ stories.

One person who keeps a diary for the archive is Kelly, who we find panhandling under an elevated train track at the intersection of State Street and Lake Avenue, about two miles into our four-mile walk. She sits next to a cup that doesn’t have enough coins to keep the wind from blowing it over, and holds a sign that says she is “emotionally drained.” She’s happy to meet up with Lloyd, though, because she hasn’t seen him for a few weeks.

“Lloyd and I are old friends. I usually update him on the street gossip,” Kelly said.

But Lloyd already seemed to know what was happening on the streets. They talked about a mutual friend who had died, then confirmed with each other that no one they knew had contracted COVID-19. It became clear from their conversation that many homeless people in Chicago know each other, and DeGrane is one of the few housed people that this community trusts.

“He’s a good guy who knows a lot of people,” confirmed John, who we met around mile three of our walk, at the intersection of East Lake Street and Michigan Avenue. He and DeGrane bonded over their shared experiences at Chicago’s Stateville prison in the 90’s. John was an inmate, and Lloyd was shooting a photo series that culminated in the last picture of murderer Richard Speck before Speck died in 1991.

“I’ve always been attracted to outlaws,” DeGrane explained.

Lloyd’s friend John smokes a Newport 100 while his 2-year-old cat, Lazy, explores a flower bed. (Caroline Catherman/MEDILL)

As DeGrane spends more time with people who live on the fringe of society, he learns their secrets.

He knows that when his friends can’t access clean needles, they shoot up with used ones, which they call “harpoons” because of how much it hurts to inject them. The discarded cigarette butts they smoke are called “snipes.” And many of them live on Lower Wacker or under bridges, “the underworld,” going to Chicago’s upper roads, “up top,” only to panhandle.

Lloyd has also learned that treatments for addiction aren’t easy fixes. He’s watched as many of his friends enter free methadone treatment programs, then test positive for opioids a few weeks later. Some programs send addicts back to the lowest dose of methadone if they slip up and use drugs just once.

John, the former convict with a pet cat, is one of the many homeless people who are trying to get clean. He’s enrolled in a methadone program, with goals to overcome his addiction and reunite with his children and grandchildren. But DeGrane is worried because John is still shooting up.

“Some people have made it out of here,” DeGrane said. “Unfortunately, that’s not many. Because when you get this far, this deep into it, it’s tough to get out.”

In rare instances, though, someone will tell DeGrane that he won’t see them on the streets anymore, because they got an apartment and got clean.

“There’s hope. I believe in hope,” DeGrane concluded.

Caroline Catherman covers Health, Science, and the Environment at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @CECatherman.