Making our neighborhoods and city better, one step at a time

The orange tents provided for the homeless are an example of small-scale efforts that can — we hope — help lead to big change.

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A person in a suit walks past tents of people who are experiencing homelessness under a viaduct on Nov. 3 in the West Loop.

A person in a suit walks past tents of people who are experiencing homelessness under a viaduct on Nov. 3 in the West Loop.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

There’s a high chance many Chicagoans have walked or driven past a person trying to keep warm on the street, while rushing home to take shelter themselves from an unforgiving wind chill.

These scenarios are why homelessness and the lack of affordable housing so often take center stage in Chicago, where brutal winters are routine. The mix of cold and lack of housing can be deadly: Between October 2021 and June 2022, the Cook County medical examiner’s office reported that 64 people died from cold exposure in our city.

Especially around the holidays, the sight of people living on the street is reason for the rest of us to reflect on how we can give back to help those who are less fortunate.

Chicago, of course, is known for its activist community, which is quick to pressure politicians and leaders to do more to solve pressing social ills. Voters certainly should hold leaders’ feet to the fire on that front.

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But let’s also remember the folks who are on the ground, doing the hard work of making our city better for everyone, on shoestring budgets and on their own time, without waiting for policies to change or for government red tape to unravel.

They deserve support from the rest of us who are able to provide it.

At a neighborhood level

Andy Robledo is one of those people. He’s been bringing attention to the Chicago housing crisis by providing temporary shelter to the unhoused through orange tents that can be seen lined up along the Dan Ryan Expressway on Taylor Street, on Canalport further south, on Harrison Street to the north and in Uptown.

Robledo was giving money to large organizations, but noticed the funds weren’t reaching or impacting folks in his neighborhood.

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“In a way, bureaucracy and red tape is killing people. ... Whether it’s the government or large nonprofits, some of these organizations are so shackled by their processes, and they can’t address a need swiftly,” Robledo said. “I can make a decision right now on what needs to happen. If I assess the need, and I’m on the ground, we can make something happen immediately.”

Through donations to his nonprofit, Feeding People Through Plants, Robledo has set up 150 double-walled ice fishing tents this year alone. Each cost about $350.

He said people are encouraged to donate and volunteer because they can see a positive change happening right in front of them. The average donation is $50, and up to 40 volunteers have shown up to help build tents.

Because the city has a duty to ensure safety and cleanliness around the encampments, Robledo has been, until recently, on a collision course with city officials.

In late October, the Department of Family and Support Services started placing removal tags on the tents and making an effort to connect the residents with shelter and housing, according to a spokesman. Residents from a camp said city workers only remove tents that are left unoccupied during the cleanings.

Now, after media attention and an agreement to have volunteers help clean and maintain encampments, Robledo said the city stopped removing tents as of mid-December. The city says it remains focused on finding permanent shelter and housing for people.

Robledo hopes his efforts are just temporary — and we do, too.

“Tents are not a solution. They are just a cure for a symptom,” he said. “My goal is to create change, make the city act and get people into apartments.”

The takeaway: Small-scale efforts can create big change.

Those who would like to give to underserved and vulnerable communities can prioritize the neighborhood and the focus area on which their gift would have the greatest impact, says Morgan Lyn, manager of marketing and communications for Forefront, a statewide organization for grantmakers and nonprofits.

Chicago is a city of neighborhoods. When we give to make our communities better, the city benefits, too.

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