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Homeless in Chicago: Calling a Patch of Grass 'Home'

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Homeless in Chicago: Calling a Patch of Grass 'Home'

The recession and foreclosure crisis have knocked a lot of people off their feet. More people appear to be slipping into homelessness. Housing Action Illinois says 87 percent of state-funded shelters saw more demand in the second half of 2008, compared with the first half. Every night, homeless people sleep scattered throughout Lincoln Park, but especially in the city's Uptown neighborhood.

Early in the morning, two worlds of Uptown converge along this stretch of Lincoln Park west of Lakeshore Drive. People stroll through walking their dogs. And then there are people like Ed Laster.

LASTER: They put $2 million for a pump to pump fresh water for them funky dogs. I love dogs, but go taste the water from that pump there that's for the people. It tastes like gasoline.

Laster and his girlfriend Vanessa, whom he calls his wife, sleep here on the grass south of Lawrence. He says one lady gave him a hard time for getting water in the dog park.

LASTER: I come in there with a cup, she say, 'Sir, where's your dog?' I look at her, 'Look lady, I am the dog, I need fresh water.'

Laster's funny, swears a blue streak and is not short on opinions. He says he'd rather sleep out under the stars than in a homeless shelter.

Really, Laster just wants his own apartment. He's HIV positive and gets a monthly disability check of about $700. He's working with the non-profit Heartland Alliance to find a place to live. He says he thought by now he'd have a roof over his head.

LASTER: I found a place, called my family, I'm in town, guess what, ya'll, I'm fit to have an apartment, I'm fit to be housed on the birthday, I will not be in the park. Well, Friday, I go up here, they waited till the damn last minute to say, 'Uh, it's not going to happen.'

Instead, Laster spent his 43rd birthday huddled under a viaduct to avoid the rain. Laster didn't grow up in poverty. He says his dad was an insurance salesman, but Laster joined a gang, started selling drugs and left home at 16.
Now he pushes his worldly possessions in a cart stolen from Target. He wheels it down a tree-lined street past condos with for sale signs in front. The irony doesn't escape him.
LASTER: It's funny, because while they were trying to push the low-class person out of here, called it regentrification, go put up condos everywhere, yeah, you got more vacant condos than anything over here and now you have more, you have more homeless people.

Laster and other homeless people here say they're surrounded by hostile condo owners who want them gone. Laster says one of the only people in the neighborhood who reaches out to the homeless is Pastor John Kim of the House of Prayer.

KIM: Really you want to repent your sins in the name of Jesus Christ.

Kim ministers to homeless people out of a borrowed church in Andersonville.

KIM: Our problem is not homelessness, our problem is not drug addiction.

Kim blames the recession for the fact that his church services are getting more crowded.

KIM: Normally, it's last year we got a Sunday service, we got 70 or 80 people, but this year getting more people, sometimes 120 or 130 people. Increase more people.

The city of Chicago says it counts homeless people but the new numbers aren't ready yet. It's clear the need for shelter is as strong as ever. Here in Uptown, Rest Shelter turns away 20 to 30 men every night because it's full. Ed Laster doesn't want to stay there. But he seems to have a way of sabotaging himself when it comes to getting permanent housing. I catch up with him in the afternoon, after he's met with his case manager. He's angry and he's been drinking. He says he's tired of jumping through hoops.

LASTER: They say come to these groups, I do. I sign my name on their signatures, because I know signatures mean what, grant money. Why am I still homeless? Why is me and my wife still out here? In the damn park?

The answer to that may be getting only more complicated in this economy. But Laster holds onto the one thing he does have – his relationship with Vanessa. They choose to live together. And for now, that means living together on a patch of grass.

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