Outside Catholic Charities’ headquarters on North LaSalle Street, homeless and other poor men and women are lining up as usual this week for the free meals served there each weekday evening.
As with life for the rest of us, however, there isn’t a whole lot about it proceeding as usual.
Instead of going inside for a sit-down meal in the dining hall as they would normally do, they are met at the door by a security guard with a Styrofoam to-go container or a bag lunch and sent quickly on their way.
They can’t come in to get a shower or a change of clothes, or even to use the washroom. The free medical screenings available some nights have also been curtailed for now.
The coronavirus crisis has made a challenging way of life even more challenging for Chicago’s homeless residents.
Still, I didn’t hear any complaints Monday from the folks picking up their meals at Catholic Charities.
“Without them, a lot of us wouldn’t have anything to eat at all,” said Mark Anderson, a tall, lean man wearing a soiled hospital mask. “Food stamps don’t go that far.”
Anderson, 56, was homeless even before he lost his part-time job at a Rush Street restaurant when it was forced to close because of the pandemic.
He said he spends his nights on the L, riding it back and forth until it’s time to move along.
“Me, too,” chimed in a woman who wanted to tell us how a group of men had stolen her cell phone on the train the previous night and how she fought them to get it back.
J.R., who stays in the park at night, walked up with his bag-lunch turkey sandwich and showed it to Anderson.
J.R. ate while we talked. Anderson waited for the line to die down to pick up his hot meal of ham slices, au gratin potatoes, green beans and a cookie.
They filled me in about some of the soup kitchens that have closed up or pared back in the last few weeks because of the coronavirus.
“No sandwiches. No dinners. No nothing,” J.R. said.
That has made the dependable evening meals at Catholic Charities’ LaSalle Street site all the more valuable. Different churches and organizations take turns serving up the food.
Fourth Presbyterian Church serves the meal on Mondays. Catholic Charities takes Tuesdays. Chicago HELP Initiative has Wednesdays. Holy Name Cathedral does Thursdays and Fridays.
“We’re grateful for that,” Anderson said. “I eat here all the time for years. This is the only place for us to come to.”
The homeless people can list the closed food programs: St. Clement’s in Lincoln Park, First Saint Paul Lutheran Church just up the street and “the Greek church,” actually Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral.
Add to that the now-absent twice-monthly meals at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Ukrainian Village and the weekly Saturday meal at Cornerstone Outreach in Uptown.
Efforts are being made to fill the void.
In addition to its Wednesday meal at Catholic Charities, the Chicago HELP Initiative has collected hundreds of bag meals and handed them out at some of the closed locations the last two Saturdays.
The group wants to team up with a commercial food truck to serve hot meals at those sites as well, but hasn’t yet worked out the logistics.
Doug Fraser, the group’s executive director, said the goal is to allow homeless people to stay close to their current locations or the places they are accustomed to finding food, instead of moving around the city in search of a meal.
But resources are a problem, especially with restaurants closing. Restaurants often partner with the groups that serve the food, providing restaurant-quality meals at a greatly reduced cost.
“It’s very tight right now,” Fraser said.
Aside from a few people wearing masks or standing off to the side to avoid the line, the homeless people did not seem to be doing much to take into account the danger of the coronavirus. There was very little social distancing being practiced.
Getting them to do so has proved difficult, acknowledged Andrew McKernin, Catholic Charities volunteer relations manager, who said everything has been working out well otherwise with the new meal setup that typically serves more than 200 guests per night.
After getting his food, Aaron Curry, 58, told me how the coronavirus is changing life on Lower Wacker. The city is now providing homeless encampments with handwashing stations, but still no portable toilets, he said.
Finding a place to go to the bathroom is a bigger problem than ever with restaurants and public buildings closed — and hospitals guarding their doors, he said.
Homeless people can be amazingly resilient, but they will continue to need help to survive this crisis.