CHICAGO — It’s not difficult to find the homeless in downtown Chicago.
Some stand on corners asking for change, others sit quietly against buildings.
They carry their belongings in black garbage bags, fraying backpacks and shopping carts with squeaky wheels.
While many shoppers and businesspeople hurry past without saying a word, some Elkhart County people are going out of their way to reach out.
“So many (homeless people) feel invisible and ignored,” said Nappanee resident John Shafer. “They’re here trying to fight to survive and they’re seeing all these shoppers with money and nice clothes. Many people don’t even notice them or they don’t want to notice them.”
A holiday shopping trip to Chicago in November 2012 led Shafer to found Chicago Five for the Homeless, Inc., a non-profit group dedicated to helping the homeless in downtown Chicago and in Michiana.
“We were walking down the streets downtown and noticing all the homeless (people),” Shafer said. “As the night got colder we noticed a lot of them did not disappear and go to stay with someone or go back to the shelter. The ones that remained began to throw a blanket down and sleep on the sidewalk in front of the buildings.”
“There were still hundreds of shoppers walking past, it was around 9 or 10 at night, and I started to think, ‘What’s going to happen when it gets colder?’” he said.
On his next trip to the city, Shafer took several blankets and gave them to homeless people he met on the street.
“Then it started to grow from there,” he said. “I started bringing more items that could meet basic needs.”
Shafer estimated he has distributed 5,500 items of clothing in Chicago and in Michiana homeless shelters and has met and helped more than 240 people on the streets of Chicago.
Now he and Rodney Rabel, also of Nappanee, make one or two trips to Chicago each month, distributing clothing, blankets and bags filled with toiletries and food.
“They’re just stunned,” Shafer said. “It takes very little effort to walk up and hand them a dollar or some spare change, but when you give them other items ,they’re shocked and surprised.”
Shafer uses Facebook to gather support and donations for his trips and has received significant support from Chicago politician Raymond Lopez, 15th Ward committeeman for the Democratic Party.
“He has been doing a lot of our footwork in Chicago and has been doing some press releases for us,” Rabel said.
Lopez works for Southwest Airlines and has organized clothing drives at work.
“He had 35 garbage bags (filled with clothes) in his office” after one clothing drive, Rabel said.
Many of the toiletries Chicago Five for the Homeless distributes were collected from hotels by Southwest Airlines employees, Shafer said.
Lopez also arranged for a Chicago-area Walmart to donate the blue cloth bags the organization distributes.
In northern Indiana, Shafer collects clothing donations from friends, coworkers and strangers. Some regular contributors comb thrift store racks for items to donate.
Chicago Five for the Homeless also contributes to Michiana shelters, including the South Bend Center for the Homeless, Faith Mission in Elkhart, Cross Bars Ministries in Mishawaka and Fellowship Missions in Warsaw.
“The great thing about the Michiana community is that there are enough churches and shelters,” Shafer said. “You don’t really encounter the homeless on the streets there. We do help out (in Michiana), but the need is greater in Chicago.”
A hot meal and a wish list
On a chilly Saturday in May, Shafer and Rabel loaded up Rabel’s SUV with items to distribute and drove to Chicago.
Once downtown, they unloaded the bags in a small parking lot and set off on foot toward the James R. Thompson Center.
Shafer said a soup kitchen sometimes sets up in front of the building and there are usually numerous homeless people in the area.
With their arms loaded down with bags, the two men set off.
They moved slowly down the street, scanning the sidewalks for homeless people.
At Pritzker Park, a small square of grass and concrete at South State and West Van Buren streets, they found a line of about 100 people waiting for something hidden under the shadow of the “L” train tracks.
“Hey man, what’re you doing with those?” a man in line asked Shafer.
“We’re going to give these bags of items to the homeless,” Shafer said.
“Well, you found us!” the man said with a laugh, gesturing to the line.
Shafer handed the man a bag and others jumped out of the line to get their own.
For a few seconds, Shafer and Rabel were surrounded by an eager mob. When the crowd fell back into the line,Shafer and Rabel stood empty-handed.
One woman, who appeared to be in her late teens or early 20s, said the long line was for a free meal served at that spot once a month.
Another woman, Deborah, said the group that provides the meal also offers a “wish list” program.
“You tell them what you need and they’ll get it for you,” she said. “You can only get one thing a month. Me, I need new shoes. These ones are gettin’ holes.”
Shafer and Rabel decided to stop their trek through the city at Pritzker Park. They would wait until everyone had received a meal and then Rabel would bring the SUV over and they would set out their plastic totes of clothes and shoes.
“We don’t want anyone to lose their place in line,” Shafer said.
Under the tracks, brothers Harold and John Fischer stood at the end of a long table.
The two men help run Helping Chicago’s Homeless, a volunteer group started by Harold Fischer’s daughter.
Once a month they feed 160 to 170 people at Pritzker Park, just across the street from the Harold Washington Library.
“During the day, (homeless people) can go in there to stay warm,” John Fischer said. “Then at 5 p.m. the library closes and they come out here.”
Harold Fischer said the group had brought 320 hot dogs, 60 pounds of potatoes and two roasters each of beans and chili to feed the crowd.
Every month, they seem to bring just enough food to feed the people in line.
“When we get down to the last dog, I look up and the line is gone,” Harold Fischer said. “Happens every time. It doesn’t matter how many we make.”
As he watched people pass through the line, Shafer said he hoped to expand Chicago Five for the Homeless to include free hot meals.
“I hope at some point I could do that,” he said. “It’s a small investment but you can feed so many.”
“I can get 320 dogs and buns for $75 and 60 pounds of potatoes, well, that’s just peanuts,” Harold Fischer said.
As the line for food dwindled, Rabel began carrying plastic totes from the SUV to a grassy area in the middle of the park. Shafer opened them and began to sort their contents. He placed backpacks and duffel bags in a pile on the grass. One tote was filled with socks and underwear, another with hats, scarves and gloves.
There was also a large box of assorted snack chips, a handful of white toothbrushes and pile of single-use toothpaste packets.
Another line began to form as he worked and when he stepped back, they eagerly started rummaging through the piles, occasionally looking up to ask him a question.
“Y’all got any underwear?” one man asked.
“Are there any jogging pants?” a woman asked.
About 20 minutes later, the piles and totes were picked over. A few pairs of shoes remained, along with some tote bags and a handful of light blue hospital socks.
The crowd slowly began to thin as people packed up their new belongings and left.
One man, who said his name was Tony, continued wandering around the tiny park, occasionally stopping to talk to someone.
He approached Shafer and asked for money for a bus fare.
“I want to get to a shelter on the west side,” he said. “Then I need to get back tomorrow, so that’s, like, $4.”
Shafer handed the man the money without hesitation.
“Thank you, man,” Tony said, embracing Shafer.
“To see that they’re happy, some like him express it beyond words,” Shafer said after Tony left. “They’re so appreciative that someone cares.”
“I’m happy with the results of our efforts today,” Shafer said as he watched people leaving the park. “I wish we could have done more.”
Chicago Five is expanding
Chicago Five for the Homeless is now expanding its services.
Inspired by what he saw in Pritzker Park, Shafer has begun preparations to set up a hot food line in July.
He plans to serve the meal in the same park, but on a weekend Helping Chicago’s Homeless will not be there, he said.
“I’ve already got cups, napkins, silverware and foil donated,” Shafer said. “I’m checking into getting some coolers and I’m planning to buy some 6-foot tables for serving with my next pay day.”
Several people have volunteered to help serve the meal and Shafer is watching local grocery sales for hot dogs and other items he will serve.
Anyone who wishes to donate or volunteer with Chicago Five for the Homeless can contact Shafer on the group’s Facebook page or call 574-383-8428 to schedule a donation pickup.