UPTOWN — There are a couple of reasons why Debra Shaw — who lives in a tent underneath the viaduct at Lawrence Avenue and Marine Drive — would like a roof over her head again someday. And they aren’t necessarily what you would think.
Namely, she would like to own a cat and cultivate her own garden, she told Lauren Phillips, a case worker with the nonprofit Thresholds over lunch on a recent afternoon.
But Shaw, 59, didn’t immediately accept Phillips’ offer to help her find housing, saying as long as she is “self-validating,” she can get by without a roof over her head.
Still, Phillips was undeterred; she sees the meeting as a first step toward helping Shaw, a former accountant. Phillips, who has worked in Threshold’s mobile assessment unit for almost two years, said she hopes Shaw will eventually feel comfortable accepting help in finding housing and human services.
The recent meeting is part of a new initiative to increase street outreach — funded in part by a $125,000 grant from the city’s Department of Health.
The additional funds mean Phillips, her team of four people and two new hires will be dedicating a lot more of their time to visiting the viaducts, striking up conversations with the homeless who live there and taking them to lunch to assess their needs — or simply helping them buy things like cloths or blankets.
“Just making eye contact or sitting down and talking with someone, hearing their story, being glad that they’re acknowledging their existence as a human being,” she said, ” … is a big part of the process.”
According to the terms of the grant, Phillips and her team must work with a at least 250 “vulnerable” adults, meaning those who are poor, homeless or at risk of become homeless in the next nine months.
They must engage with them, assess them for severe mental illnesses and then arrange meetings with mental health professionals.
After sitting down with Shaw, Phillips approached Rex Gaimari, who also agreed to meet. As the two left the area, a couple of other people living underneath the viaducts asked if they could come with her, too.
“The need is overwhelming,” Phillips said. She agreed to meet with them at a later date.
Gaimari has been living on the streets for two years. While eating two burgers and thanking Phillips multiple times in between bites, the 46-year-old used Phillip’s phone to apply for shelter through the Chicago Central Referral System, the first step toward finding subsidized housing in the city.
“I have a smile on my face because no one else is helping out,” Gaimari said after Phillips stepped away for a few minutes. “I know Lauren is going to take care of me.”
By applying for housing, Gaimari said he finally gets to focus on himself.
“All of the people you see around me … I’ve been helping them and I’m exhausted,” he said, adding that he’s known as the “mom” among the people living underneath the Uptown viaduct. “I need to concentrate on me now.”
Phillips called her position at Thresholds a “dream job.”
When she first started, she was working on a team of eight case workers. That team was later cut in half. Now, thanks to the grant, there will be seven Thresholds case workers doing street outreach on the North Side.
Thresholds also has mobile assessment unit teams working on the CTA as well as the South and West Sides. Established in 1959, Thresholds offers healthcare, housing and human services to people living with mental illnesses in the city and around the state, according to its website.
Phillips said she couldn’t speak to whether Uptown’s homeless population has gone down since she started working in the neighborhood roughly two years ago, but she said she “sees incredible changes happening on an individual level.”
“It’s a privilege for me. I get to witness and play a small part in people making the most unimaginable changes in their lives with the deck stacked against them,” she said.