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Med students photo
xMasters students from Rosalind Franklin Medical School volunteer to provide podiatric care to shelter residents. (Photo/Jada Watts)

Chicago Women's Homeless Shelters Healing Mind, Body, Spirit

By Jada Watts and Kelsi Morefield

Posted: Friday, May 17, 2019 

When temperatures in Chicago plunged Jan. 29-31 to windchills under 50-below,  authorities warned Chicagoans not to be outside for more than 15 minutes. An uncovered face could get frostbite in as little as 10 minutes, and tourists photographed the thick ice floating atop Lake Michigan.   

Although the polar vortex drew international attention to the city, it drew Chicago’s attention to a more local issue -- homelessness.

According to the Chicago Coalition for Homelessness, Chicago has approximately 80,000 homeless people -- or about the same as the population of Evanston. Of these 80,000, about 64,000 people live doubled up with friends or family and about 24,000 were served by homeless shelters in 2016.

Why are there so many homeless people in Chicago? According to the annual Out of Reach study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the Chicago housing wage is $22.69 an hour for a two-bedroom apartment that costs an average of $1,500.

With the current minimum wage at $12, minimum wage workers have to work 31 hours a week just to pay for their apartment, leaving 9 hours worth of pay per week to go towards every other necessity. Not including taxes.

Although living conditions are difficult for all people struggling with homelessness, there are added dangers and concerns for women. Of all of the homeless serviced by shelters in 2016, about 40 percent were women, right about the national average, statistics show.

According to the 2018 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, nationwide, about 39% of homeless people are women or girls.

On any given day, homeless women in Chicago can face any number of challenges, experts say.

“[I’ve] met quite few women with chronic physical health issues like immune, fatigue, pain etc and there's really no awareness or acknowledgement that those people exist. I used to get brutal periods like puking, black outs, couldn’t move. Had to stay in an abusive relationship [because] you can’t be homeless when that happens every 3-4 weeks for four days,” said a homeless woman who has been verified as Reddit user sevenverse7.

She continued, “a lot of places have clothing donations but everything is like a size 0-4 which is fine if [you’re] a junkie but if [you’re] not there really isn’t anything if [you’re] average or plus ... which is fine no one owes me that ... the prob[lem] is that then it’s assumed [you] have access to free clothing though donations and social assistance programs expect that [you’re] getting free clothing but there really isn’t any unless [you’re] a certain size. Women can also be mean, violent, thieves... etc, we aren’t all just victims or [whatever].”

Chicago has several organizations dedicated to the sheltering and protection of homeless women and their children, such as Deborah’s Place, Sarah’s Circle and the Pacific Garden Mission.

LaVonne Bennett, assistant manager of the New Life Bible Program at Pacific Garden Mission, provided insight on organizations such as theirs to support and rehabilitate homeless women in Chicago.

Pacific Garden Mission is located at 1458 South Canal Street. Bennett said that the facility can house over 1,000 people, but according to its website, about 300 women and children are housed there nightly.

While entering the homeless shelter, those seeking residence must first enter through security on the east side of the building. There, they will be checked to ensure that they will be of no harm to any of the other residents. Then, they are escorted into the day room, where they can stay for temporary safety and warmth before the doors are closed.

Across the hall there is a large banquet room with flags, two baby grand pianos, and a stage. Hundreds of metal folding chairs are lined up in rows. This is where the presentations and services take place several times a day. Right down the hall there is a small glass-windowed room where med students from Chicago universities come to provide medical assistance and regular checkups to the residents.

At the end of this hallway is a main desk, where residents can check in to enter the overnight facilities, separated by gender. Visitors wishing to meet with management are greeted and given directions to go up the stairwell to the right and take a sharp left, where they are welcomed by Bennett.

As visitors are not permitted to interact with the residents at the shelter unless they are volunteering, the only information from the shelter is from Bennett.

Bennett, among other things, described the two main programs that the shelter offers. One is a 90-day addiction program with the purpose of weaning the residents off of addictive substances. After this, these residents can choose to enter the Pacific Garden Mission’s one-year program.


Shelter wall

The children at the shelter painted this wall with their mothers. One will encounter this when walking
along the “yellow brick road”, the mission’s name for its bright yellow floors. (Photo/Jada Watts)

As the Pacific Garden Mission is a Christian homeless shelter, residents who choose to participate in the one-year program are expected to embrace religion along with their rehabilitation. Not all homeless shelters are religiously affiliated, but Bennett explained that homeless shelters that are religious, like theirs, were funded entirely by donations, because state-run facilities cannot have religious affiliations.

Bennett said that the physical needs of the residents are the first priority when they come to the shelter.

“Some come in wet, dirty, you know, hungry," Bennett said. "We provide free food, clothing, and shelter. They come in off the street. We’re gonna make sure that they get cleaned up, they can take a shower, they can get some clean clothes, and they can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner."

Head of the Mother and Children’s Ministry, Samantha Goff addressed some of the ways that the shelter helps women out in more ways than just physically.

Then the spiritual needs are prioritized. If residents decide that they need more guidance in their life through faith they can enroll in the yearlong bible program. The focus is on their spiritual condition and Christianity.

Bennett explained exactly how the Pacific Garden Mission goes about providing residents with the tools to heal and grow spiritually. 

“They join the year-long Bible program,” she said. “Our focus is on their spiritual condition. They attend a couple of Bible classes a day, and we teach everything from fundamentals of the faith, to what it means to be a Christian, to what is a church, you know, what is justification.

“We also teach topical lessons on things such as fear, anger...these are patterns that we’ve seen in our residents," she said. "A lot of them wrestle with fear, and when you hear their story, you’ll understand why. Lot of them wrestle with anger, there’s a lot of unforgiveness, a lot of them have been wounded and terribly damaged, so those are some of the patterns we’ve seen.”

In addition to this, the Pacific Garden Mission helps residents reunite with their families, prepare for career success, and find employment. Some residents even find themselves working for the Pacific Garden Mission after they successfully complete the program.  

The thousands of homeless women in the city are helped every day by institutions such as the Pacific Garden Mission.

Now that spring has arrived, many people tend to forget that homeless struggle all year-round.

“Just because it gets warmer doesn’t mean that the population isn’t still there," Bennett said. "That demographic is still out there ... you can’t but see that these are people who deserve to be loved, who deserve to be respected, who deserve to be served...these are people. They are not animals, they are not just misfits.”

Bennett explained that there are several ways people can help institutions such as the Pacific Garden Mission and other organizations that assist homeless.

“Of course, donations can go a long way, because getting donations; we know where the need is most," she said. "It’s a blessing when people do give...also, people can help definitely with prayer, and [with] volunteerism. We constantly get a stream of volunteers...they come and they help clean, they help serve, and that gives back to our residents. That speaks to our residents.” 

One vital resource for homeless shelters is donated used or new items.

“A lot of people come just with the clothes on their backs,” Bennett said.  “There’s always a need for seasonal clothing -- underwear for women, undergarments for women -- and then the larger women, we always have a need for clothing for the women who are plus sizes. We tend to run out of those items first.”

Bennett also summed up her appreciation for the volunteers: “They’re a gift to the community. They’re a gift to us.”

 To volunteer or help, visit PGM.org


Person-on-the-street interview asking Chicagoans if they know how many homeless are in their city. Many were surprised by the actual number.

Insert video asking Chicagoans how many homeless people live in Chicago HERE)

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