By Harry Huggins
Nicholas Saldana met Sarah Levine-Miles on the “L.” He might not have met her at all if it wasn’t so cold that morning last year. And without the chance meeting, Saldana might still be homeless.
Saldana survived the cold by sleeping on the CTA Blue Line, riding it all the way from Forest Park to O’Hare and trying to catch as much rest as he could before a conductor or station agent kicked him off.
Saldana had rotting teeth when he met Levine-Miles at the O’Hare station, but outreach workers avoid jumping right into difficult topics like healthcare. First, they talked about music. Building rapport is always the first step.
“The majority of folks we work with haven’t trusted people in a very long time and have usually been burned by or forgotten by society,” Levine-Miles said. “Without building trust and relationships, there is really no way we can move forward with any of the other stuff.”
That trust is the key to developing the determination Saldana needed to figure out complicated things like getting dentures, glasses and, eventually, his own apartment in Ashburn by Midway Airport.
Levine-Miles is a street outreach worker for the Chicago nonprofit Thresholds. This winter, the city saw thousands of Chicagoans like Saldana boarding the Red and Blue lines and laying across three or four seats just to stay warm or avoid harassment on the streets or in shelters.
Every Jaunary, volunteers and city workers canvas the whole of Chicago to count the entire homeless population, both in shelters and out on the streets. The 2015 count found 2,055 people, more unsheltered homeless people than at any time since the count began tracking that information in 2005. They were sleeping in CTA trains, under viaducts, on park benches and elsewhere outside at the time of the January count.
The previous high count was 1,727 in 2005. Jennifer Rottner at the Department of Family and Support Services attributes the high number to warm weather, which makes shelters less enticing, and noted that they counted more people than usual on the CTA.
Thresholds’ street team is one of a few groups trying to reach homeless people outside of traditional shelters and connect them, when they’re ready, to lifelines of support. The Chicago Department of Family and Support Services and Catholic Charities of Chicago also do street outreach.
For their part, the CTA teaches staff to “actively encourage” homeless riders to find shelters and homeless services, spokesman Jeff Tolman said. To this end, the CTA puts extra security guards on the Red and Blue Lines to check out trains from midnight to 8 a.m.
Saldana became homeless after an intense family argument about money escalated to a point where his sister and mother kicked him out of their house. He is gay and HIV positive; he’s struggled multiple times with AIDS-like symptoms but considers himself a “miracle patient.” He talks fervently about anything with anyone, jumping from topic to topic at his whim, and he stands strong in his convictions.
Shelters provide access to the social safety net that can help people find housing, through social workers and case management. But the people you see sleeping on trains and buses or laying across a warm subway grate either chose to avoid shelters or were kicked out and can’t return.
Saldana felt threatened in shelters. He said he loves “kids, dogs, hipsters, old, young,” but the only people he doesn’t trust are other homeless people.
“I know what they can do to you,” Saldana said. “They can rip you off. I admit, I was homeless, but I never ripped anybody off.”
Mada Leanga heads the Thresholds street outreach team. Thresholds mainly provides services for people with mental illnesses. She sees that the people they serve don’t want to be institutionalized or abide by the shelters’ strict rules about alcohol and drugs that many who are mentally ill use to self-medicate.
“Just being homeless is traumatizing, so people don’t like to have another person next to them, and when you’re experiencing paranoia, it’s even worse,” Leanga said. “There’s not a lot of housing for homeless people with mental illnesses. They think it’s safer on the streets.”
But the trains can be just as dangerous. Saldana described being harassed by other passengers. He said two men once smacked him on the Red Line and tried to mug him after hearing him talking with some friends about Chicago’s gay pride parade.
To reach people on trains and in the street, Thresholds created a team focused on finding and engaging those who are often hardest to track down. Their team of six young social workers and outreach specialists traverse Chicago’s network of CTA trains and the Pedway downtown. Their backpacks hold paperwork for people they’ll meet during the day and supplies like socks.
They look for a few long-time members and any newcomers they can assist, people who exhibit common signs of mental illnesses like talking to themselves, wild gesturing and noticeable neglect of hygiene.
When they find somebody, the outreach team starts trying to build a relationship. They offer to buy them coffee or some food at a nearby restaurant. When you spend all day being ignored by passers-by, just having someone talk to you is huge.
“People I see on the train pretty often look surprised when I call them by name,” Levine-Miles said. “That warm interaction I have with people…I acknowledge their humanity and it makes their day to be someone worthy of greeting.”
In the course of a conversation, the team asks them about income, assessing their most immediate needs for clothing or medical attention.
If the homeless person seems ready to move toward more long-term assistance, Thresholds workers will work as fast as possible to connect them with medical benefits, food stamps, social security—whatever they can get. And unlike most shelters, the mobile assessment units don’t care if a person is staying clean.
“We don’t judge anybody,” Leanga said. “We offer, as much as possible, validation and empathy. We realize there’s a reason they’re using. We accept people for who they are and try to encourage the idea of trying to make sure that they’re safe.”
But people as accepting as trained social workers are rare on the trains. Saldana and multiple other homeless CTA riders speak of conductors and station agents waking them at the end of the line and kicking them off the train. Tolman said this policy is in line with the nature of CTA fares: one swipe entitles a passenger only to a one-way ride and an indoor transfer.
Even when they can sleep, homeless CTA passengers are often the subject of ire from their fellow riders.
Jonathan Wenske is a web designer and lives off the Blue Line in Wicker Park. He said he doesn’t appreciate people sleeping on the train.
“Honestly, it’s really annoying when they’re laying down across multiple seats,” Wenske said. “It would be nice if they checked the trains more just to be like hey, get up. But I do understand that they need to travel from place to place, but it’s like, stop sleeping for like eight hours on a train.”
Homeless people notice and feel the effects they have on other CTA riders. Melvin Enoch used to ride the Blue Line but lives with his sister now. He would feel ashamed when people went out of their way to avoid a car he was in.
“It embarrassed me!” Enoch said. “Gave me a funny feeling. But it gave me the incentive to try to do better and get off of the trains.”
Shayna Wiley, also in Wicker Park, admitted that she is put off by the smell of some homeless people on the trains, but she doesn’t blame them for their condition.
“It’s not like there’s that many places for them to go,” Wiley said. “I know shelters aren’t always the best places, so maybe they feel safe on the train, and who are you to say that they can’t?”
Wiley goes one step further than the many commuters who try their best to ignore homeless people.
“I’m sure people don’t want to be bothered, but ignoring them isn’t necessarily the correct thing to do either, because they are people at the end of the day,” Wiley said.
John Czapkowicz has worked with Thresholds’ outreach team for more than six years. He sees how people like Saldana and Enoch can fall through Chicago’s social safety nets. Homeless services exist, but they’re mainly geared toward people without mental disabilities.
“People with mental illness get lost, ostracized, exiled because they can’t follow the rules of the mainstream community shelters,” Czapkowicz said. “I see homeless mental health services as the frontlines of the whole industry.”
Although Czapkowicz believes that a train is an “ideal pseudo-shelter,” he said the only way to get people permanently off the streets is with more investment in affordable housing.
Even after a Thresholds member gets out of the trains and into a home, it takes a lot of effort to stay there. If someone can’t continue to pay rent, buy food or deal with landlords and neighbors they’ll likely end up back in the trains. So the Thresholds team continues meeting and working with people long after they’ve found an apartment.
“Someone like [Saldana] who attributes so much of his success to us…it’s really him!” Levine-Miles said. “He has so much joy and determination. Just knowing that my help is important to him and seeing what he can do and the changes he’s making in his life, I feel lucky to experience those transformations.”