Story By Andre Francisco
Photographs by Dan Dry
Andrew Green has lived most of his life by other people’s rules. There were rules in the foster homes, rules in the group homes, nothing but rules at the boot camp in Wisconsin, and now every night he hears the rules barked out at the Epworth Single Men’s Shelter.
“There is one rule that all other rules fall under,” shouted Vince Stefanelli, the shelter manager for the night. “Do not piss me off.”
Green is 19 and homeless. He spends his days walking around the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago and his nights in the gym of the Epworth United Methodist Church. He’s in the single men’s program run by Cornerstone Community Outreach and is by far the youngest member. Few of the other men are under 30, and many are in their 50’s.
But in the larger picture of homelessness in America, Green is not an anomaly. Many of the nation’s homeless are teenagers, often who have grown out of the foster system with little education and fewer job skills.
Green has been homeless for 8 months and despite spending his days in a neighborhood filled with social services, he has no strong leads to a way out of homelessness.
“It sucks being homeless,” Green said. “ I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.”
Green is woken up every morning around 6:30 a.m. by the staff of the Epworth Shelter. He sleeps on a six-inch-thick blue mattress covered by a blanket with a giant picture of the Virgin Mary.
His mattress is one of sometimes 70 in the shelter.
The gym is one basketball court long with a small stage and an old TV and VCR. There are four VHS tapes and one DVD but no DVD player to play it in. The lines on the basketball court are long warn off, the plaster on the walls is cracked and missing, and the tall thin windows are covered in plastic sheeting to keep the heat in.
Green is a regular so he gets the same bed number each night. As the youngest man in the shelter, many people feel like they have taken Green under their wing. Shelter managers, clients who volunteer at the shelter, and some Cornerstone staff said they take special care to watch out for him. Everyone says he is a good kid, but in the next breath they all mention his tendency to “run his lout mouth” and get in trouble.
Green is small, but it’s difficult to get a good measure of him because he is always dressed in multiple layers and coats that are a few sizes too big. He has bad acne, a broad smile and smokes whenever he can get his hands on a cigarette.
He only goes by Andrew while in the shelter. When he steps outside and down to his regular corner outside the SL Pantry he has a new name.
“I go by Lokz,” he said.
Green used to run with a group of Latinos in California who thought his street antics to be especially crazy, so they called him Loco. Green didn’t like the name and after a few alterations settled on Lokz. Now he seems undeserving of the name except for his good-natured fights with his friend Goldie.
Green eats three meals a day at the Cornerstone kitchen, plus a second dinner and breakfast at the shelter. During the winter months, most of the men from the shelter hang out in a warming center run by Cornerstone.
The warming center is an open room with a hodge-podge of salvaged and donated chairs circled around an old and fading TV. Some guys play pool and other shoot hoops and smoke in what used to be a large garage for the building.
The warming shelter is also the first step in a long list of rules that Green has to follow to get a bed at Epworth. Everyday he must sign in at the warming shelter before 4:30 p.m. to secure a bed that night. Missing a day or showing up drunk can get him barred from the shelter for a night.
At the shelter he waits in line until called and then yells out his blanket number and is assigned a bed. With an ID card as collateral, Green can get a towel, a cube of brown soap and a hotel sized Aveda Rosemary-Mint Shampoo to use in one of the three showers in the back.
To stay in the shelter, Green also had to be tested for tuberculosis.
“Even though no one has caught that shit since Jesus was around,” said Green.
Before he started staying regularly at the Epworth Shelter, Green spent his nights on a cardboard mattress on the loading dock behind a wholesale oriental food distributor. When he wasn’t there he slept on the El, but always on the blue line. As the red line approached 95th St. the chances increased of someone picking a fight or stealing his stuff.
On his first night in the area, Green stayed at a men’s shelter run by REST. There he met Alejandro “Alex” Ramirez, who is now one of his close friends. Ramirez is a big guy from the Dominican Republic who has taken Green on as a window washing assistant. They get $10 for washing the front windows at a check cashing storefront in a strip mall.
Green’s last steady job was as a dishwasher at a restaurant in Wisconsin over a year ago. He has no real job skills and faces some practical hurdles to getting a job. He has no birth certificate, no GED, no social security card and no ID. An organization called Alternatives is helping him apply for his birth certificate and has given him a voicemail box, but getting an ID is especially difficult when you aren’t living in your home state.
Green said his education was poor because he moved between foster homes so often. His last formal schooling was when he was 17 and in the 10th grade, which would put him about two years behind. Though he’d like a GED, he isn’t optimistic.
“I’m not smart enough,” he said. “Like honestly. I can honestly say I’m uneducated.”
Green was born in Wisconsin and moved to California when he was 12. As a teenager he moved back into a foster home in Fitchburg, Wis. and spent some time a boot camp for teens in Spooner, Wis.
Green also spent time in Arizona, where his ex-girlfriend Lilliana now lives. Her name is tattooed in blue across his right hand. Lilliana is also the father of Green’s two-month-old daughter, who was born on Green’s 19th birthday in December. Green has never met his daughter.
“I got pictures of her on my MySpace,” he said. “I want to spend time with her. She’s my daughter too you know. But me and [her mom] are going through some things right now.”
Two more tattoos on his right hand tell the story of the family he has already lost. An open teardrop and a cross with his mother’s initials symbolize her death.
On Sundays, Green occasionally attends Unity Christian Church in a small storefront on Sheridan Rd. The church is a plain room with row of metal folding chairs and bars on the windows. Green is usually the only white member among the small, mostly African immigrant congregation. He attended regularly until getting in an argument with senior pastor Albert Kouame. His loud mouth had come up again. Green said he goes to church to feel cleansed, but not forgiven, of his sins.
“I believe in God, but God ain’t done shit for me in my life,” he said.
Green dreams of getting a place of his own and a good job. He doesn’t want to live in a single room occupancy, often the first step for the homeless, or in a studio.
“I want to get a crib. Like an apartment, something like that,” he said.
A good job would be something he likes and that could get him the fast money he needs to get off the street. He admits to having few skills, but says he excels at one thing.
“I’m really bomb at giving massages,” he said. “I give some killer massages, but I know that that type of business doesn’t make the quick money that I need to get up out of here.”