Friday, 20 November 2015

Homeless For The Holidays

Richard Craig says he chooses to be homeless, but he has a plan to get back on his feet. Back in Albuquerque, he had a successful window-washing business until his equipment was stolen.
Homeless for the holidays (By Patrick Yeagle): If you didn’t know better, you might think Richard Craig is a powerful businessman. An athletic, handsome man of 46, he’s dressed sharply from head to toe: black wingtip dress shoes, black dress slacks, a black turtleneck under a black diamond-knit sweater and a long black overcoat. He has a salt-and-pepper flat-top crew cut and fashionable stubble over tanned, weathered skin. He carries himself with confidence and seems to know everyone. Others come to his table to say hello. People passing on the street nod or wave to him as they would a well-connected member of the establishment.

But Craig is not a businessman – at least not at the moment. Right now, he’s homeless. Craig is one of hundreds of homeless people facing another winter on the streets. While he insists that he can handle it, he’s worried about those with less experience and less will to survive.

Even in the best circumstances, being homeless is mentally and emotionally draining. Homeless people interviewed by Illinois Times describe feeling invisible, lost, alone, hopeless and constantly afraid for their lives. Winter adds a physical element to the suffering, bringing new challenges and compounding the effects of homelessness on the human psyche.

This winter in particular will be challenging for Springfield’s homeless population. The Salvation Army – usually a linchpin in the battle against homelessness – doesn’t have any shelter to offer this year. The group is in the midst of renovating a new-to-them building at 221 N. 11th St., and their old facility was sold. Corps administrator Major Steve Woodard says the new facility is slated to open sometime in 2016.

That means 36 shelter beds will be out of commission this winter, putting further pressure on the Winter Warming Center, previously known as the Springfield Overflow Shelter. It’s a seasonal facility open from November to March each winter to supplement Springfield’s permanent shelters. Juan Huerta, director of the Office of Community Relations for the City of Springfield, says the other shelters expanded to absorb the people that the Salvation Army would have otherwise served. 

Rod Lane, executive director of Helping Hands of Springfield, says his organization recently expanded from 33 beds to 45 beds by moving to a new location. Still, he says there probably won’t be enough beds for everyone at some point. While demand isn’t high right now, it will likely grow as the weather worsens. Additionally, Helping Hands has not been paid in months by the State of Illinois because of the ongoing budget impasse, and Lane says his organization is running on reserves.

“If we do not get a state budget soon, we will absolutely, unequivocally shut down,” he said.

Huerta said he’s working to have the City of Springfield pay Helping Hands up front for operating the Winter Warming Center, instead of reimbursing them afterward. The temporary shelter opened on Nov. 1.

The lower number of available shelter beds may be somewhat mitigated by the current strong El Niño, which refers to warmer-than-usual surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. The phenomenon is projected to push air that is warmer and drier than usual into the upper Midwest this winter, which could mean fewer sub-zero days and less snow. Still, winter storms and cold snaps will undoubtedly happen, and one frigid night is enough to endanger the lives of those people who wind up on the street.
A day in the life:
Richard Craig usually wakes up before dawn. A local business owner lets Craig sleep under his shop’s awning, so Craig likes to move his suitcase and other belongings out of sight before the business opens.

Most homeless people prefer to sleep at one of the shelters, which offer protection from the weather. However, Craig is one of a handful of people who prefer to sleep outside. During the winter, Craig lines his sleeping bag with garbage bags to keep in heat. While that has kept him from freezing in previous winters, he says it causes him to sweat, which makes him even colder when he gets out of bed. He says he always sleeps on cardboard because “concrete drains your energy.”

Craig says he grew up in a family of itinerant fruit pickers, so he’s used to moving often and sleeping outside. He has lived in California, Colorado, Texas, New Mexico and several other places. Back in Albuquerque, he had a successful window-washing business until his equipment was stolen. He says he actually chooses to be homeless now because being in a house reminds him that his ex-fiancée took their son, now nine years old, when they split up. He keeps in touch with them but doesn’t see them regularly. 

Several people have offered to let Craig stay with them when they find semi-permanent shelter like a cheap apartment or an abandoned building. He always turns them down, in part because he sees his homeless status as a calling to protect others on the street. 

“There are a lot of predators out here,” he said.

From 6:30 until about 10:30 each morning, Craig and dozens of other people head to the Washington Street Mission at 408 N. Fourth St., which offers hot coffee, laundry service, showers and biweekly clothing giveaways. Inside the mission, people sit at tables or walk around aimlessly, seemingly paying no attention to the woman playing hymns on an old piano. The small men’s room is constantly full, doubling as a changing room and a place to groom. 

Outside, people hide from the cold wind in the doorway while they smoke and socialize. A thin, goateed man who looks to be in his late 30s aggressively paces back and forth on the sidewalk, waving his arms and issuing a profanity-laced threat to “beat anyone’s ass” who messes with him. He finally calms down when someone gives him a cigarette.

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