posted in: Chicago, Day In The Life 19
Homeless man, Bowery St., NYC, 1942. Photo: Wikipedia.
Homeless man, Bowery St., NYC, 1942. Photo: Wikipedia.


My building takes up a quarter of a city block and has two different entrances.

The front door is manned by a doorman; the back way puts you out into the alley that runs between my block and the next one. The Green and Orange line El tracks run overhead the whole length of the alleyway, so when you’re back there and a train goes by overhead, it’s pretty loud — loud enough to do a terrific impression of Liza Minnelli when she screams with the trains in Cabaret. Not that I ever do that.

There is a conscious decision to be made when I’m coming or going as to which door I should take. Mostly, the circumstances of my arrival or departure dictate which entrance is best; the building is big enough that the entrances really affect travel time, depending on where you’re headed or coming from. My mood factors in, too. And lately there is another consideration which I’ll get to in a moment.

Reasons for coming/going through the front door may include:

I’m carrying heavy bags of groceries and need a hand
I’m headed to/home from the airport and am lugging two suitcases, a purse, and a totebag and my brain and need a hand
I’m going out on a date and feel like making a dramatic exit
I’m coming home from a date and feel like making a dramatic entrance
I wanna say hi to Stanley or J.C. (favorite door guys) if they’re working
I’m headed south or east

Reasons for coming/going through the back door, through the alley, under the El tracks may include:

I’m going to yoga (I shave about 4 minutes off the walk this way)
I need to pick up packages (the receiving room is in the back hallway out to the alley)
I’m not really wanting to chat with the doorman (even Stanley or J.C.) because I’m grumpy
The alley is pretty awesome in a gritty city kind of way

You may be thinking, “Hm. Big city alley. Loud train overhead… Are you sure you should be using the back entrance much Mar? At least at night, maybe you should take the front door.”

While you are nice to be thinking of my safety — and right to question it — in many years of living down here, I’ve never felt unsafe going through the back way. My neighborhood is a busy one with many college campuses sort of crammed on top of one another (e.g., East/West, Columbia College Chicago, Roosevelt, Spertus, and SAIC not so far, either) and there’s heavy foot traffic around the entrance to my alley most of the time. There are huge blocks student housing nearby, a 24/7 gym on the corner above the 7-11, a Peet’s Coffee not far away, and I’m not the only person who uses the back entrance, either; I often say hi to neighbors who are also lazy or anti-social.

But over the past month or two, something’s changed.

The beginning of the alley is the back of a Lou Malnati’s pizzeria. All the restaurant’s dumpsters are clustered back there, nestled in what could accurately be described as a cove. (In fact, let’s call it “The Cove” for the purposes of this story.) There’s a huge space between the actual alley street — like where cars drive through — and the entrance to Lou Malnati’s, and an enormous overhang shelters this area. It’s really hard to describe but trust me: There are many hundreds of sheltered square feet as private as a restaurant dumpster area in an alley can be. Put another way: If you lived on the street, this spot would be an excellent find — and I’m not trying to be funny.

Over the years, I have come to expect there will be people hanging around The Cove from time to time. Sometimes I see kids bumming around smoking cigarettes there, but usually it’s an older, sadder crowd: mostly homeless men or men who appear homeless and are certainly living far, far below the poverty line. Sometimes there will be someone sleeping there; sometimes there will be someone peeing there.

And not until recently did I feel that it was a drug spot. But I think it is, now. Something’s changed at The Cove. There are rougher-looking characters there and more of them at once: five or six people congregated instead of the usual two or three. When I pass, I really get checked out. No one says anything, but I am being scanned for sure: Am I a threat or not?

I can’t be sure there’s drug stuff going on, though. And it’s so cold. Tomorrow it will be -8 degrees in my city. People who live on the streets have to go someplace, don’t they? It’s a really good spot, I can see that. And no one at The Cove has ever made me feel that I was in danger, so I had major guilt when I thought about alerting the authorities.

Still, I had a bad feeling. I do get skeeved these days when I walk by. And anxious. What if letting the cops know about the increase in traffic back there could keep something bad from happening to me or someone else? And if these folks are in need of shelter, the cops could help them find a way better place than The Cove — a place with blankets and food that isn’t garbage. I looked up online what to do about such a situation and found great information from homeless coalitions and social services organizations who did encourage me to call 311.

So I did. I chatted with the lady about the alley and told her how conflicted I was about the whole thing. She said it was the right thing to do to let them know and that they’ll keep their eye on it. I told her I give to the Chicago Food Bank but other than that, I feel pretty helpless about the homeless problem in my city or in any city. She agreed that it’s really hard, especially in winter. We hung up. I felt like I had tattled to the teacher or something. I felt weird.

What would you have done?

Negative eight degrees tomorrow. Negative eight.

19 Responses

  1. Barbara
    | Reply

    I would have done what you did. It’s the only positive thing to do. I know you mentioned that you gave recieving room guy some leftover food. What about giving away hot drinks nad food? It might frighten them away or help the situation. Whenever I visits large American cities(I live in a small country town in Canada) we always speak to the people we meet in those situations. Try to develop a relationship, for a short time.
    Just my thoughts.

  2. Martha
    | Reply

    I think that letting the authorities know that they are there is a positive thing. Here in NYC they do sweeps on the cold nights and help people get to safer places. And the train stations stay open.

  3. Kimberly
    | Reply

    In my area I wouldn’t have said anything because I know what usually happens is people get moved on and taken to jail. There are few of any homeless shelters, most are filled by 8 pm. The “warming shelters” are open from 5pm-9pm. I work in social services? The harsh reality is some people are going to freeze on the streets and there’s not enough funding to help them out. If they get taken to jail for tressepassing (this is what eventually happens) then they will deal with owing the system money and having another headache.
    You know your area better, so I can’t weigh in on if what you did was right or not… I’ve just seen the above happen an awful lot and this problem will only get worse.

  4. Baa Goldfarb
    | Reply

    I would have done exactly what you did because it’s an issue of safety. You should feel safe coming & going to your own building via alleyway or street. I would also mention it to the pizza guy as I’m sure he would want to know about people hanging about behind his shop since someone has to take out the trash & may be a little hesitant seeing other people congregating out there. Blessings,Baa

  5. Wendy
    | Reply

    You did the right thing. Someone hanging out there obviously needs a helping hand.
    You are also right to trust your feelings. The older I get, the more I realize that sinking feeling is a gift I no longer ignore. I have ignored that feeling in the past, and it later proved that sinking feeling was correct more often than not. It’s our innate reaction to possible danger.
    I believe we are all supposed to look out for each other as human beings. It’s the reason we’re all here together.

  6. Dorothy
    | Reply

    Always call 911 when you feel “unsettled”—some cities have a “non-emergency” number you can call. This at least gives the police a way to track the calls about a problem. .ALWAYS go with your gut feeling Homeless is not a one city problem–it is all all over the country Big city– little villages–it is there. Some of us just close our eyes and say it is someone else’s problem. Not so, it is a problem for all of us. And just donating to the local food bank does not “cure” the problem. The government needs to step in with programs for health help (mental & physical), job training, drug/alcolhol re-hab,and most of all we need AFFORDABLE housing—-there is none in my small city

  7. Judy Forkner
    | Reply

    You did the right thing. those people need to get inside when it’s that cold. Homelessness is a nationwide problem, and really not solvable by individual cities. Although lot’s of cities are discussing it lots & trying various tactics. I think the problem is too big & the federal government needs to get more involved (fat chance after this past election), but maybe someday. So many of the homeless are veterans. Fighting for our country got them in this mess, so our country has a responsibility to truly help them.

  8. Susan
    | Reply

    You did the right thing. Safety. Eight below. Trust your instinct. You’re a city girl. You know.

  9. nadine donovan
    | Reply

    I believe you did the right thing. This is a tough situation. It concerns your safety and theirs. You made your decision with the right intent.

  10. Rhonda Mossner
    | Reply

    I have a quilting friend who makes up packets in Ziploc bags and hands them out to homeless on the street corners. The large bag includes two pairs O’s tube socks, gloves, hat, a couple of granola bars and $2. The money is for hot coffee.

    • Mary
      | Reply

      Awesome, RM. I can do that.

  11. Carol
    | Reply

    You did the right thing Mary! Trust your instinct. You may have saved a life. Today is going to be brutal in Chicago and no one should be outside. If something illegal is going on in the Cove it should be stopped as fast as possible. Love reading your stories. Stay warm

  12. Colleen
    | Reply

    Do not use the alley

  13. Anita Brayton
    | Reply

    We live in a conflicted time. We are told to “see something, say something” and that being a snitch is the key to being ostracized from a social/cultural group. I think it is important to study what I am actually seeing and hearing before I voice my observation. I live in a rural area. Homelessness is not walking, begging, clustering on the streets. They are couch surfing, living in their cars or storage units. Taking care of personal hygiene at work or public restrooms or in the woods. Several religious organizations got together and have created a live-in shelter for families but can only help a limited number. It is a bit of a solution. The addicts pretty much fend for themselves.

    You did the right thing.

  14. MrsB
    | Reply

    You did the right thing. If police get rid of drug element, the people who really need shelter will find it there.

  15. Vivian
    | Reply

    Always trust your gut Mary. There’s a reason you’re feeling hinky, go with that. As for as the homeless population in your little corner of the alley, you said that you have usually felt safe walking through there. If something has changed, which it has or you wouldn’t have picked up on it, then you need to pay attention. You did the right thing. Stay safe (and warm)!

  16. Susan
    | Reply

    I donated to a homeless veterans CHRISTMAS PROJECT.
    A child from our community has organized this for 6 years. Check out Reagan Tornado Relief Effort on Facebook.

  17. Barbara
    | Reply

    You did the right thing, now just stop using that alley for awhile.

  18. Donna F
    | Reply

    you did the right thing. I hope your city has extra beds on cold nights like nights at -8 degree. Even my small town has to open more beds when the temperature get so low. Keep woking with DSS and help as you can.

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