As many of us look at the shrinking value of our retirement funds and savings accounts, perhaps a reality check is in order. There is, after all, a huge part of this society, for whom the economic bust means very little. They never knew there was a boom to begin with.
The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless estimates at least 73,000 people are homeless in Chicago. Of those, more than 26,000 are children in families, more than 12,000 are adults in families, and 32,000 are single adults, the agency said. More than 54,000 live on the streets in cars, abandoned buildings, or in some other location that cannot be classified as a "fixed residence," according to CCH.
"If you are hungry and you haven't had something to eat for several days, your pride sort of has to be lost, to get something to eat," said Captain Nancy Powers of the Salvation Army. "People don't understand how fortunate they are, that they're looking at a reduction in their savings accounts."
The Salvation Army hits the streets every day, operating feeding programs that provide hot meals to hundreds of needy Chicagoans. Other Army programs provide low cost or free clothing, and the agency's food pantries are doing a bigger business than ever. Some of the Army's programs have seen increases of as much as 125 percent, a spokesman said.
And while some of those food pantries are seeing engineers and architects who might never have been customers before, other clients are sadly familiar.
"And this is the only meal that they're going to have," said Powers. "This is the only sustenance that they're going to get, is the one meal a day, from us."
The Salvation Army operates the Booth Lodge for homeless families on Chicago's North Side. It's full, and 70 percent of its residents are children.
"The families that we see living here are no different than any other family," said Teresa Cortas, the shelter's director. "As the economy changes, it's hard to say what the population will look like living here in the future."
"It just takes you losing a job," said Booth Lodge resident Jamaal Murray. Murray and his wife Elaina came to Booth with their 4-month-old son a month ago, after he lost his job as a security guard in Kentucky. Elaina was a University of Kentucky nursing student. But after family in Chicago couldn't accommodate them, they said the Salvation Army provided the only shelter they could find for their son.
"If you have no job, you can't pay for school or anything else," said Elaina. "That's what happened, we lost all of that."
"It happens to everyday people," said Murray. "This situation doesn't just happen to people with addictions and have problems. It happens to everyday people."
On the streets, the Army's warriors fan out across the city, seeking the poorest of the poor with no retirement plans except a drive to stay alive. "Most people who eat with us, they do eat with us every day," said staffer Jimmy Turchany. "It's soup, soap, and salvation. Go by the shelters. Everything is full. It's rough nowadays."
The Army's Deborah Byrd sees it all firsthand. Asked where her clients spend the cold Chicago nights, she said it runs the gamut. "They're going to shelters, others are riding the Red Line. Some are staying under viaducts. I think during these economic times, people are now getting a message. 'I don't have it as bad as I thought!'"
As with most commercial companies, the Salvation Army's revenues are down, meaning they are being asked to do more than ever, with fewer resources. But they will continue to tackle the need, Powers said.
"There is absolutely nothing better in the world than knowing you are extending God's hand to the people here on Earth," she said.