Linda Benavides, 65, and her husband, Manuel Benavides, 64, walk through O’Hare International Airport with all of their belongings, looking for a vacant bench to sleep on for the night due to homelessness, Wednesday afternoon, May 20, 2020.

Linda Benavides, 65, and her husband, Manuel Benavides, 64, walk through O’Hare International Airport with all of their belongings, looking for a vacant bench to sleep on for the night due to homelessness, Wednesday afternoon, May 20, 2020.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Stuck at home? Try living at O’Hare — since April

Most likely they will be back at O’Hare tonight, sleeping there again, or trying to, leaning against each other, using their jackets as blankets.

SHARE Stuck at home? Try living at O’Hare — since April
SHARE Stuck at home? Try living at O’Hare — since April

Linda Benavides and her husband, Manuel, slept at O’Hare International Airport Wednesday night. In Terminal 1, near baggage claim. At least they tried to sleep, until 2:30 a.m., when the police kicked them out, again. They went to sleep on the Blue Line.

Or tried to.

“There was a party on the train,” she said. “The Blue Line is bad. Drug addicts.”

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Most likely they will be back at O’Hare tonight, sleeping there again, or trying to, leaning against each other, using their jackets as blankets.

They’ve slept at O’Hare most nights for the past month.A good place to sleep, Linda said, because the bathrooms are right there. But not exactly pleasant.

“It’s hard,” said Linda, 65. She said it several times. “It’s hard.”

Why is it hard? Well, the lights are always on, for starters. And the constant looped announcements.“Cover coughs and sneezes and clean and disinfect hard surfaces...”

Plus it’s cold.

“Like a refrigerator,” she said.

The couple is used to the warmth of Central America. They lived in El Salvador for more than 10 years, trying to stretch her tiny pension from the Chicago Board of Education.

“The only family he had was in El Salvador,” said Linda, while Manuel, 64, looked on. “He lets me do all of the talking because he can’t express himself that well.”

They lived in San Salvador from 2009 until April 16.

“We were helping his mom,” she said. Then his mother died. And the trouble began.

“The last few months the gangbangers started on us, because I’m an American,” Linda said, shifting into her imitation of an MS13 member: “‘If you don’t give us money, we’ll kill you.’”

Linda Benavides, 65, helps her husband, Manuel Benavides, 64, put on his coat to stay warm as they prepare for another night’s sleep on a bench at O’Hare Airport.

Linda Benavides, 65, helps her husband, Manuel Benavides, 64, put on his coat Wednesday to stay warm as they prepare for another night’s sleep on a bench at O’Hare Airport.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

She’s an American, Chicago-born, to quote Saul Bellow. On the West Side. A graduate of Chicago St. Mary’s High School on Taylor Street. She always worked — 11 years at the Board of Education, eight for the Chicago Police Department, as a clerk. She met Manuel at Charles Levy, the big book and magazine distributor, where she was his supervisor.

“I used to get a lot of books free from there, beautiful books,” she said. “I miss it.”

Her being an American was enough to get them back to Chicago from El Salvador.

“The American embassy stepped in with a flight immediately,” she said. “We had to leave a lot of stuff back there. They gave us $400.”

The money didn’t last long.

“While I was at the store, somebody pick-pocketed and took the cash,” she said. “And that was it.”

A friend stored their possessions, but couldn’t put them up.

“He has a lot of people in the house,” Linda explained.

Americans who thought themselves secure are now contemplating futures that were once unimaginable. The COVID-19 crisis has made it tougher to be homeless, and airports are noticing an influx. Recently, Philadelphia International Airport had an encampment of almost 200 homeless living there. O’Hare administration tries to balance compassion with running an international airport.

Linda Benavides, 65, and her husband, Manuel Benavides, 64, organize their belongings on a rental cart at O’Hare Airport Wednesday before they search for a vacant bench to sleep on for the night.

Linda Benavides, 65, and her husband, Manuel Benavides, 64, organize their belongings on a rental cart at O’Hare Airport Wednesday before they search for a vacant bench to sleep on for the night.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

“This is something all airports are confronting,” said Chicago Department of Aviation spokesman Matt McGrath, adding that, while they try to be humane—the city runs an outreach facility at O’Hare, Haymarket Center, connecting the homeless and others in need to appropriate services—that in the final analysis “this is an airport.”

An airport where Linda and Manuel Benavides’ provisions are running low.

“We have three slices of bread and a can of pate — ham — that you can spread on the bread. That’s it,” she said. “It’s really hard.“

I met them because Linda sent an email to the Sun-Times Wednesday morning.

“Forget the lakefront,” it began. “Open more places for senior citizens. Couple[s] shelters instead of separating them. We have been homeless for a month. Sleeping in the airport O’Hare. Please help us. We are disabled and my husband injured his left knee an walks with crutches. Please help us.”

She wishes Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot would worry more about people like herself and her husband and less about joggers.

“They don’t understand because they’re not homeless,” she said. “I’ve been calling shelters. They give me an SR number. Seven o’clock in the morning I call. By 8:30 they call me back, ‘Oh, we have no rooms available. Try again tomorrow.’”

“They want our taxes,” said Manuel, chiming in for the first time. “The governor, mayor, they need your vote and they don’t help you.” He can vote, having become a citizen in 2001.

Linda Benavides, 65, pushes a cart through O’Hare Airport Wednesday night, looking for a bench to sleep on. She and her husband, Manuel Benavides, 64, have been staying at the airport since arriving from El Salvador April 16. The cart holds all their possessions.

Linda Benavides, 65, pushes a cart through O’Hare Airport Wednesday night, looking for a bench to sleep on. She and her husband, Manuel Benavides, 64, have been staying at the airport since arriving from El Salvador April 16. The cart holds all their possessions.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Linda doesn’t want to be separated from husband.

“I need to help him with his medication,” she said. “They don’t understand. [They say] ‘Oh, we could put your husband on the North Side and you could go 119 South.’ I say, ‘Don’t you understand? He’s handicapped. I gotta be with him. I know ibuprofen’s not strong medication. But he takes two at a time.”

The knee is from slipping in a bathtub — they’ve slept in budget hotels 11 of the past 36 nights, thanks to charitable folks, such as United Airlines staffers.

“Nice lady, one of the workers here,” said Linda. “She said, ‘‘I know you’ve been staying here a long time.’ She said, ‘We collected enough money for you to stay at a hotel.’ Please tell them they’re the best. She would bring us sandwiches.”

Thanks to kind-hearted souls, on Tuesday they stayed at the Motel 6 at Lawrence and Des Plaines, and could shower and rest. But at 11 a.m. Wednesday they were homeless again. They have money coming — about $300, a retirement payment from her 11 years at the Board of Education. But that check doesn’t clear until May 27.

Until then, O’Hare is jarringly empty. Masked workers stand in the distance. Police occasionally pass without giving Linda and Manuel a second glance. Announcements blare over and over again. You can tune them out, but if you pay attention, there’s an irony to be found.

“Wash your hands often,” one begins. “Practice social distancing by allowing six feet between you and others. Take steps to protect others by staying home if you are sick.”

If you have a home to stay in, that is. The Benavides’ tale of woe goes on, but you get the picture. Suddenly, being forced to stay home doesn’t seem so bad, does it?

Linda Benavides, 65, and her husband, Manuel Benavides, 64, settle in with their belongings on a bench at O’Hare Airport, where they are sleeping most nights. They arrived from El Salvador in April.

Linda Benavides, 65, and her husband, Manuel Benavides, 64, settle in with their belongings on a bench at O’Hare Airport, where they are sleeping most nights. They arrived from El Salvador in April.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

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