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Jennifer Kirby/MEDILL

Matt Smith, Communications Director for the Chicago Department of Family & Support Services, briefs volunteers on the goals of the homeless street count.

Jennifer Kirby/Medill     

Homeless count volunteers tell their stories.

‘I feel I have to give back’

by Jennifer Kirby
Jan 24, 2013

Volunteers huddled in teams, stuffing surveys and sharpened pencils into their backpacks. They grabbed a last cup of hot coffee, and headed out into the cold Tuesday night for Chicago’s point-in-time homeless count.

“It’s one of the most important things to me,” Scruggs said. “When I moved here from a very small town of Normal, Illinois, it was one of the things that struck me the most.

“And I would just be crying all the time and what can I do to help this, I mean really help, you know?”  

That’s first-time volunteer Laura Scruggs. She dispatched with more than 300 other volunteers who canvassed every square mile of Chicago to survey those who sleep on the cold concrete. They ask questions like “where or you staying tonight?” or have you “ever been in prison or jail?” Returning volunteer Daryl Flink said they’re not easy questions to ask.

“The first year I did it, I was in Tampa, this was in 2009,” Flink said. “And the first person I interviewed, I said, ‘how long have you been homeless for?’ And he says, I’m not homeless, I live right there.

“He pointed to a box. I didn’t know what to do.”

First-time volunteer Elizabeth Ball-Crudup said sometimes there just isn’t a right answer. “Sometimes you can just talk to them, and that helps them a lot, you know, that helps them on the way with their day sometimes,” Ball-Crudup said.

“Just being there, just being friendly, just holding a conversation. Sometimes,” she said, “that’s all it takes.”  

Ball-Crudup and her husband, Darvin Chambliss, moved to Chicago this fall. The day before they arrived, a fire ripped through their apartment. They were homeless for almost three months.

“I guess once you’re on the other side and you can see what it is to be homeless you know what they go through because I went through it myself, " Chambliss said. "I wish for no one to have to go through that."

Ball-Crudup and Chambliss have a home again. They said someone helped them when they were struggling, and this count is another way to pay it forward.

“So I feel I have to give back, that’s what God would want me to do, so that’s what I’m doing,” Chambliss said.
Volunteers finished up the count around 2 a.m. Wednesday. Each searched a separate slice of Chicago, trying to reach the people who’d slipped into its shadows. Like U.S. vet Bob Kimmer, who himself was homeless almost ten years ago.

“We’re all human, and everybody has their ups and downs,” Kimmer said. “You just gotta learn that no matter what everyone can make it through.”

The City will release the survey results this summer.