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Spending a Night with the Rats in the Bowels of Downtown Chicago

It was a bitterly cold, damp day in downtown Chicago. It was so cold, in fact, that the frigid air seemed to pierce my bones.

Following a few days spent taking in the annual Association of Gospel Rescue Missions Convention, we had a little time to spend in the heart of downtown Chicago before heading to Midway Airport to catch our plane back to Albuquerque.

Seeing some steps going down to what I initially thought was the city’s underground metro, I asked my colleague, Joy Junction’s Kathy Sotelo, if she would like to go “exploring.” She quickly, and cheerfully, agreed.

A few seconds later, we arrived below. Much to my surprise, it wasn’t a railroad but rather, cars and roads-almost an underground city.

I discovered through Mike’s Railway History (http://mikes.railhistory.railfan.net/r047.html) that Chicago’s underground tunnel system, originally started at the turn of the last century, has gone through a number of changes. It now assists many business, vendors and their warehouses by allowing for an easier exchange or products while not clogging up the streets.

Obviously tourists, as we gaped around open mouthed (at least me!) we were approached by three individuals walking over to us from a few hundred feet away. They asked us what we needed.

I explained that we were from out of town and were just exploring the city. They explained that they were homeless, lived down there and made their living giving directions to out-of-towners (who were just as bewildered as we were). I told them that we were from Joy Junction, a homeless shelter in New Mexico, and had been attending a convention in nearby St. Charles.

I immediately felt compelled to buy them supper (which turned out to be three foot-long sandwiches at a nearby Subway). However, I asked one of the guys, whose names was Michael, if he could tell me a little bit about himself and how he managed to end up calling this squalid place home. He agreed.

Michael said he gotten into some “bad situations” when he was younger and had been evicted from his home. As a result, he ended up in Chicago’s underbelly, where he said he had been for the last three or four years.

I asked Michael how it was living down there. He said, “It’s rough, people that step over you, you have rats. You have people that will help you, people that won’t help you … I try to … make an honest living. To make an honest dollar.”

I asked Michael what he would say to people who tell him he needs to go get a job. He said that’s what he is doing. “I take funding from others that may help me out, and perhaps go and get cleaned up and go and try to find me a job at various places.”

I reiterated, “A job to get an apartment and a real place?”

Michael was a little vague there, saying that he is working with a number of people who are helping him work toward that goal, and something is “scheduled to go through in maybe about a month or so.”

I asked Michael to describe for me the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back” and pushed him over the edge to living in Chicago’s tunnels.

He said, “I wasn’t getting along with a lot of my family members, and started drinking, lost my job, and my wife and kids left me. So, it was like ‘That was it.’ That was the turning point. I (wound) up down here. I lost my home. I lost my family, lost everything I had and … I’ve been down here three or four years.”

I asked Michael the worst part of living in the tunnels.

He said it stinks and there are rats. He added, “ … and some people care and some people don’t. I feel shameful living down here. I feel like I am an outcast to society and to the world. I feel worthless … ”

He added, “It is depressing and heart breaking… it hurts to be here.”

I I asked Michael what people could do to help him get back on his feet. He said, “Pray.” Michael added that any donations to help him and the many others in a similar situation would be appreciated.

He said his goal and those with whom he meets is ultimately to become “better and productive strong citizens and be placed back into society.”

And, Michael added, he would also eventually like to be in a position where he could help others in similar situations get reintegrated back into mainstream community life.

My Take

As we walked upstairs, I mentally envisioned the hopelessness and despair that must many times engulf Michael and the many others who call this seamy side of Chicago their “home.” Imagine going to bed and being woken up with a middle-of-the-night kiss from a rat. I encourage you to pray for Michael and the thousands of other precious souls who will be homeless tonight; not just in the tunnels but all over Chicago.

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