Sometimes getting away from home helps us realize what’s going on at home. A trip to the Windy City—Chicago—unexpectedly served this purpose. It was a trip of planes, trains and automobiles and a whole lot of wind and snow. My daughters and I, plus a very young granddaughter, traveled to Chicago to attend a baby shower for my niece.
We arrived naïve to the weather, excited about the expectation of snow. We thought we were ready for a big adventure until actually venturing out onto the streets. The cold was beyond description. It was brutal, painful and constant. I worried about my granddaughter in her stroller being whipped by wind. We made it about a half a block from our hotel before ducking into a shop. From there we wove through other shops to get to the mall where all thoughts of weather quickly disappeared.
That evening after dinner, with the baby snug and warm in bed, one of my daughters and I decided to walk to Lake Michigan, which was only a few blocks away. It was bitterly cold and just beginning to snow but to native Californians it was enchanting. We took pictures, FaceTimed home and generally acted like kids. Hurrying back to the hotel to escape the cold, we talked about the people whom we had seen on the streets earlier in the day and who appeared to be homeless, and we wondered how they managed in the harsh weather that was such a novelty to us. Where did they go at night? Who cared for them?
Chicago has a large population of people living on the streets. They do not have the comfort of multiple pieces of warm apparel or the promise of a hotel room. The realization took a bit of the bloom off our rosy adventure, and rightfully so. The next day we ventured out onto the streets with a new awareness of the men and women sitting inside malls and shops with their belongings alongside them doing their best to keep warm. We wondered again what happened at night when the shops, the malls and other public places closed.
Looking into information about homelessness in Chicago, I learned that as of July, 2013 there were approximately 116,042 people classified as homeless, up 10% from the previous year and predicted by officials to rise again in the coming year. I also learned that you can call Chicago City Services at 311 and be transferred to a Homeless Prevention Center which is housed and operated by none other than Catholic Charities, which offers services in multiple languages. A quick Google search revealed similar Catholic Charities programs in many parts of the country, including Los Angeles.
The trip to Chicago, while a chance to connect with family and experience the beauty of the city, brought home the struggles of a population often ignored. We moved within a radius of only a few blocks in our four days in the city, yet the disparity of life experiences was profound. There were obviously poor people on the streets along with men, women and children in the finest and warmest winter gear. There were magnificent hotels, every high-end shop imaginable, loads of restaurants and most likely many who had little to eat and inadequate clothing for the harsh climate.
This is not unique to Chicago. It is also a description of Los Angeles—poverty in the shadow of luxury. The weather-related difficulties made us more aware of the situation. It shook us out of our complacent suburban comfort zones and gave us a better appreciation of the work of Catholic Charities. We cannot change the homeless situation in Chicago, but we can do more to help here in Los Angeles. Next time there is an appeal from Catholic Charities to support their work here in Los Angeles, we will take it more seriously.
Anne Hansen is Regional Director for IVC Los Angeles and has written a column for the Tidings newspaper for many years (nearly 20)—Family Time. She co-authored Culture-Sensitive Ministry (Paulist Press, 2010) and offers workshops and retreats throughout the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.