Episode 2: Safe Shelter

Structures keeping us from harm

Adam's Weekly Blog

Chicago’s frozen streets

Chicago’s frozen streets

It was so cold that I sent out a Tweet asking if I must have...
It was so cold that I sent out a Tweet asking if I must have misunderstood. Could it really be -23 Celsius? It was early evening in Chicago and I was on the streets with two homeless locals called Kevo and his girlfriend Sparkles.

Sparkles was an effervescent woman in her early 20s and Kevo was a quiet man who looked older – although it was difficult to tell. He was wary of us and we were wary of him. He looked rough and none-too friendly. Though so would I, if I was about to sleep on the streets in weather that was already so cold I couldn’t feel my fingers, my throat was aching, my ears were throbbing and I had long since stopped worrying about whether I looked good on camera or not and had wrapped my scarf over my hat - so my head looked like a badly wrapped present.

We were walking through the unlit alleyways of Chicago looking for the ventilation shafts of office blocks, as Kevo and Sparkles said you could get some heat from them if you stood close enough.

We had also come to meet Michael Rakowitz, a local artist who has been working on a scheme to provide some warmth and much needed safe shelter for many of the city’s homeless.

According to Chicago’s Homeless Alliance, on any given evening in the city, more than 6,000 people approach the night not knowing where they are going to sleep. Their figures don’t mean that many are living on the streets as many stay with friends or families doubling up in the homes of others. I was suspicious of the claim as you don’t see hundreds or thousands of people on the streets, but even if the actual number was a small fraction of that claim – it would be a major problem for many many people.

Michael has been working on a project to provide some relief to those who can’t find a place indoors to sleep. It’s called the Parasite. It is a makeshift shelter made of plastic bags that uses the hot air from a building’s ventilation system.

Basically it’s a network of tubes that’s created by cutting the bottoms off rubbish bags. You tape the bags together to form a network of plastic tubes that fill with the hot air from the ventilation shaft of a building. It’s like the small bags of air that are sometimes used to pack expensive electronic products in boxes.

The inlet tube is hooked to the ventilation shaft of a building by some twisted metal coat hangers.

A person can slide themselves in between the sealed bags of air, so that they are never coming into direct contact with the warm air that’s leaving the exhaust system.

In weather that would bring London to a halt, we were looking for a decent hot air outlet to get the parasite working for Sparkles and Kevo. Because the building owners don’t give - indeed are never asked for - permission, no one was entirely sure of whether we would get in trouble – so there was an air of furtiveness about our trip. Not least because we were heading down what looked like very dodgy alleyways.

Although US cities seem to be full of vents billowing clouds of condensation into the air, now we needed one, we couldn’t find any. Finally we tried to hook the system to a ventilation shaft where we thought the air was a little warmer – although I thought it barely perceptible.

Michael’s plastic bag tube system slowly filled up and eventually Sparkles not so much slipped in, but wedged herself in the small space between the filling air bags.

It wasn’t much but it was certainly better than laying in the street and perhaps even a very real lifesaver for those who have nowhere else to go.

Kevo and Sparkles told us they leave their belongings in various bags around the City in dark corners and hope they are not stolen. There are few shelters – in one they were robbed; in another they got bed bugs. So despite the hardship, they prefer the streets. Sparkles has family and keeps in touch with her sister on Facebook and Kevo seemed to have been in the armed forces.

Like many people, I suspect, I would never have got into conversation with them had it not been for the filming. But they seemed a nice, quiet and thoughtful couple. Nicer then many more privileged people I have had to spend the evening with.

Nonetheless I was cautious when Michael invited them back to our hotel for a hot chocolate after we had filmed. It was a good gesture but what would our rather trendy hotel think of us bringing two homeless people into their bar. What’s more, it was bad enough having to leave them on the street but what were we going to do after our drinks – send them out onto the street as we headed upstairs to our room?

In the end Kevo and Sparkles looked no different to any other grunge-like artist that may have been staying at the hotel and Michael bought them a room for the night. It was a lovely thing to do. Kevo told us he and Sparkles make money by painting and I asked if he would paint me something, which he did as we sat in the bar drinking hot chocolate. I bought it for the office.

The night in the hotel was a kind offer. The plastic bag tent is a great idea. Neither unfortunately will solve the problem of homelessness, which Kevo and Sparkles and thousands of others are suffering from. But on that night in temperatures I couldn’t believe – they provided a warm and welcome respite for two very nice people.

You can see more about Michael Rakowitz’s Parasite designs here
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