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Chicago group aims to share overload of Christmas food donations: ‘Come and get it’

Many Chicagoans who often go to sleep hungry at other points of the year find themselves overwhelmed during the holidays with loads of donated food they can’t use. One group is out to change that.

People receive food during a food re-distributing initiative near an encampment of people experiencing homelessness Thursday on West Lawrence Avenue and North Lake Shore Drive in the Uptown neighborhood.
People receive food during a food re-distributing initiative near an encampment of people experiencing homelessness Thursday on West Lawrence Avenue and North Lake Shore Drive in the Uptown neighborhood.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Every year, Chicago’s season of giving turns into a season of waste.

Waves of people and businesses caught up in the holiday spirit head to the brutally cold underpasses and tents that thousands in the city call home, delivering boxes of food to the people who need it most — but who can’t possibly consume it in the space of a week or make it last much longer.

And so some of the Chicagoans who often go to sleep hungry at other points of the year find themselves surrounded by loads of perishable foods that are destined for the trash, while others simply don’t have access to the generosity.

In a year that has taken so much, the Chicago Union of the Homeless is out to prevent that cruel bit of irony and spread the relative wealth more efficiently.

Members of the group, which includes many who stay at encampments across the city, weathered the bone-chilling Christmas Eve wind chill to launch that effort from the unhoused community on Lawrence Avenue underneath Lake Shore Drive.

“To the people on the street, we have extra food for anyone who wants it. If you’re hungry, come and get it,” said Tom Gordon, who’s known as mayor of the Uptown encampment.

Tom Gordon, co-vice president of the Chicago Union of the Homeless, brings food donations to a table during a food re-distributing initiative Thursday in Uptown.
Tom Gordon, co-vice president of the Chicago Union of the Homeless, brings food donations to a table during a food re-distributing initiative Thursday in Uptown.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

As usual, cars lined up under the viaduct Thursday to drop off more donations than the people who live there will be able to use. This year, though, the Chicago Union of the Homeless is coordinating with other outreach groups to redistribute the excess goods to other encampments that might not see the same steady influx of generosity.

That effort will last through the holidays as donations typically peak the days after Thanksgiving and Christmas, according to Adam Gottlieb, a union board member.

“We’re changing the narrative, showing that people living in homelessness are caring, contributing members of their communities who are eager to give back what they can despite having the least and constantly having to struggle to survive the elements,” Gottlieb said.

Members of the group say they’re also filling a void of public support from elected officials, especially those in Washington wrangling over a second wave of coronavirus relief checks.

“Our government has not given any of us any kind of relief,” said Bonnie Contreras, the president of the union. “We shouldn’t have to wait for people to decide to bless us.”

Bonnie Contreras, center, speaks at a food re-distributing initiative Thursday in Uptown.
Bonnie Contreras, center, speaks at a food re-distributing initiative Thursday in Uptown.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The best way for Chicagoans to help is to keep donating wherever possible, according to Gottlieb, but also to take the time to get to know the people they see in their neighborhoods experiencing homelessness, and provide assistance whenever possible throughout the year.

“Start building those relationships so that you can also be a part of meeting the needs that do exist,” Gottlieb said.

Chicago Union of the Homeless also accepts monetary and other donations.

In addition to Uptown, the group will be coordinating redistribution efforts from the encampments at Roosevelt and Des Plaines Street, as well as at 51st and Federal streets.