Homeless in a pandemic-stricken Chicago

Underneath the city streets on Lower Wacker, many people have set up encampments along a stretch of concrete and iron rust. It can smell like gasoline, cat urine, pigeon droppings, rat decay, mold, and rotted fruit, depending on where you’re standing. At night the light is harsh and artificial, and the hum of cars, buses, and trucks never stops. Those who live here call it the Underworld. Some struggle with PTSD and substance use disorder. It’s late December 2020, and they are all trying to survive.

Drew is soft-spoken, very thin with earnest brown eyes. He once worked in construction. He’s been holding a sign to make money, but he doesn’t make enough. He lives in a tent.

“Everyone’s still working from home, but we’re all out here. It was hard for us before. It’s even harder now,” he told me last winter. “I have to provide for my son and myself . . . I have bigger things to worry about on a daily basis than a virus I may or may not get, that may or may not kill me. I may die anyway.”

Stacey lives with her boyfriend Greg Smith and their cat Simba in the tent next to Drew. Her face, framed by light brown hair, looks pale as she pulls a dark ski hat down over her forehead to stay warm. Weeks before I met her, she had recovered from a swollen black eye after getting punched when trying to protect another woman from an aggressor. Like Stacey, Greg is caring and hospitable. When we meet, he rushes to find his folding chair so I’ll have a comfortable place to sit. 

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