Business group attacks panhandling with kindness

Every Monday at 8 a.m. social worker Kieran Gadbury walks the major intersections and back alleys of Six Corners’ business district in Portage Park. His quest is to find individuals who call the streets home.

Despite his personal commitment to help those in need, what brings Gadbury to the Six Corners intersection is a new and creative approach by the Six Corners Business Association that blurs the line between social service and business development.

At a Six Corners Business Association meeting two years ago, business owners struggled to resolve the issue of homelessness that many feared deterred people from the shopping district. The association decided that an aggressive police enforcement approach proved ineffective, as the homeless generally returned after police left, says Joe Angelastri, association chairman.

“Some business owners wanted to use enforcement only. For example, call the police and have them pushed out,” says Angelastri. “We decided on a different approach which was to actually find the reasons why they were there and to then get them help and social services.”

The association reached out to Hands to Help Ministries, an organization composed of several community churches, to assist in their efforts. Rev. Kara Wagner Sherer, pastor of St. John's Episcopal Church and executive director of Hands to Help Ministries, says her organization was looking to hire a part-time social worker but simply did not have the funds available.

“Six Corners Association gave us a grant that allowed us to hire a social worker for what started at four hours a week and is now at 12 hours a week,” says Sherer.

Initially Hands to Help began working with those who were chronically homeless, or had been homeless for more than two years, she says.

“The goal was to find people who were homeless and staying on the streets, specifically at the Six Corners, and get them into some form of housing,” Sherer says. “That has morphed with the help of the Irving Park Food Pantry where we also worked with people who are in danger of becoming homeless.”

The increase of individuals on the edge of homelessness is a growing concern for many, like Gadbury, who see Portage Park as an area of particular concern due to its heavy concentration of Polish-Americans dependent on the construction trade.     

“I think the way outreach and homeless services have worked is if you look the part and if you play the part, maybe there’s something we can do to help you,” says Gadbury. “But in times like these where someone who just lost their job, has had housing for a long time, isn’t use to the situation of accessing services or getting food stamps and might end up out here one day panhandling.”

This can be a very difficult situation because individuals in danger of slipping into homelessness do not know where to go for help, says Gadbury. What is worse, he continued, is a level of pride that makes it difficult for someone in that position to apply for benefits or services. With the help of the business association, Hands to Help and the Iriving Park Food Pantry, Gadbury is working to help individuals navigate “the system,” as he calls it, and receive the assistance they need.

On a recent trip through the neighborhood, Gadbury came across a woman who calls herself Margaret Nelson.

As Nelson  walked up and down Milwaukee Avenue with a plastic cup, asking for change as cars stopped at the light, Gadbury asked if she needed help. 

"One thing I know I need, but I don’t have the money for..." Nelson says. "I have no ID whatsoever.”

The majority of those that have been on the streets for a significant period of time do not have any form of identification, which makes it nearly impossible for them to qualify for government help.

Nelson also says she needs $23.80 to buy diapers and food for her six children.

Gadbury gives her the money on the condition that she visit his office on Wednesday. He also promises to begin the process of getting her government identification.

Another potential client, who identifies himself only as Wesley, appears to be intoxicated.

“Do you want to hear about when I was in Afghanistan? I killed people," he says.

Gadbury says he hopes Wesley will get sober and "be prepared to make a big change."

“I love you,” Wesley says, repeating the phrase over and over.

The most difficult step in helping the homeless is building personal relationships, Gadbury says.

Funds provided by the association give Gadbury the opportunity to buy someone a cup of coffee, a bus pass, a burger, or even a cigarette. With these small gestures of grace, Gadbury is able to develop relationships with those that often want to be left alone. 

“Some people simply don’t want help or are too ill to know they need help,” says Gadbury of the chronically homeless. “Sometimes it can take several months to build an engagement.”

Some business associations might not be patient enough to understand this commitment, but the Six Corners association is different. Unlike businesses in other communities that try to remove homeless from the streets, Six Corners has worked to stem the problem of homelessness for the good for the community, not simply for the good of their business, says Gadbury.

As Gadbury and Angelastri see it, significant change is only possible when the homeless want to help themselves.

“Our mission is not to get homeless people off the streets, it’s to get them to want to get off the streets,” Gadbury says. “We don’t want to forcefully put someone anywhere where they don’t want to be because they won’t stay there.”