Community homeless get stuck in the rut of the street

Panhandler Michael Fottler, who suffers from bone cancer, flying a sign by Sam’s Club parking lot in Champaign on Thursday, April 30, 2015

By Andrew Nowak

Editor’s Note: This is the final piece of a three-part series on panhandling within Campustown. Read part 1 and part 2 here. 

Teresa Webb has lived in Champaign all her life.

She was married for 27 years, but it all changed when she was sent to prison after being charged for a DUI for having her keys in her ignition while intoxicated and subsequently got a divorce.

Webb said being homeless is no way to live and it hurts her body. She hopes to get off the streets this month, and said it is hard, as a woman, to be outside at night.

“You gotta sleep on a bench or something by yourself or in the alley,” Webb said. “It ain’t no joke, man. When rains coming down, you’re cold, and you’re scared, and then you feel somebody just come up on you. I have been raped, I have been everything you can imagine out here.”

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Webb said men have plenty of options when it comes to shelters, but besides additional space in the winter months, she said the women’s shelters are full. She uses Daily Bread Soup Kitchen and occasionally showers at the TIMES Center.

Courage Connection, a women’s shelter and emergency housing organization in Champaign, is currently full, said Mary Wallace, the shelter’s director of development.

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, in 2013, 63.4 percent of all sheltered homeless were male.

Wallace said one of the difficulties with housing women is they often have children with them, which requires additional space.

Webb said she has been working with an officer of the Champaign Police Department to help straighten out her life, she has issues with her ex-husband, and her daughter has stolen her disability money.

“He’s (the officer) helped me with my daughter, and thank God for him, because that’s the only way,” Webb said. “He came and checked up on me today to make sure I was OK.”

Webb said she knows a homeless couple that could change their lives, but choose not to because they have lost so much hope and don’t care anymore.

Talking to other homeless people, helping them out and sharing what little she has helps Webb get by.

“People think that just because you’re homeless, you don’t have a purpose,” Webb said. “Yeah you do; you’ve got a purpose. I mean God is making us be able to survive. There is a reason.”

Webb is one of the many homeless individuals Tony Comtois, mentor at C-U at Home, might find on his daily drive around Champaign for the organization’s street outreach program.

On April 29, Comtois offered to put Webb up in a hotel for the night for safety, after he witnessing her visibly upset. Earlier that day, as Webb sat on a bench in downtown Champaign, she heard from a homeless man sitting next to her, King Garrett, that another homeless man was back in town, who she believed was going to kill her.

Comtois talked to Webb and Garrett, offering her the hotel room, but she turned him down, saying she had some things to do that day but maybe tomorrow.

It is the sickness of having been on the street, Comtois said. He called it being “chewed up by the machine” as he discussed seeing a vacant look in the eyes of the homeless.

“The street has just ate them up, and there ain’t nothing left inside,” Comtois said. “They’ve shut down completely because something happened to them or they’ve seen something and they just can’t deal with it anymore, so they’re going to check out mentally.”

Just when he thinks he has seen it all, Comtois said he sees another thing he just can’t understand.

Comtois said one panhandler refused to take new clothes given to him by a volunteer because he couldn’t look presentable if he wanted people to give him money.

Another man had an opportunity to get health care but instead ignored his condition until his foot needed to be amputated.

“To try and understand it is damn near impossible,” Comtois said.

Comtois said he wishes people would go and talk to the homeless and panhandlers instead of throwing money at them.

Skip Frost, deputy chief of police for the University Police Department, said more times than not, the money given to panhandlers isn’t providing them with sustenance. Rather, it is enabling them to continue the life they are already living.

Frost’s advice to students is to give to social services, such as United Way or C-U at Home, if they want to actually help the homeless.

“They come to the campus area because people are so generous,” Frost said. “If they found that people were unwilling to give them cash upfront on the street, if that started to occur, they would go somewhere else or they would find another way to survive.”

One panhandler on Comtois’ route, Jason Easterly, admitted he was using his money for things besides sustenance. He said alcohol and drugs led him to being homeless, but it’s still what his money goes toward.

By flying a sign in the evening in downtown Champaign for a couple hours or so, Easterly, 28, said he makes around $75 to $80 on a bad day.

He is originally from Knoxville, Tennessee, but ended up in Illinois after being transferred in and out of mental institutions after trying to kill himself. Easterly said he goes to Daily Bread Soup Kitchen in order to get sack lunches.

Another panhandler on Comtois’ route is someone he knows from his hometown of Rantoul, where they went to school together.

Panhandler Michael Fottler, 47, currently rents an apartment, but rent and utilities take up all of his disability payments. He has had bone cancer for almost 17 years, and is struggling to stay alive.

The type of bone cancer Fottler has, chondrosarcoma, is rare and has already taken his leg.

“I’m kind of scared to go back (to Carle),” Fottler said. “Right now, I think I got it in my right hand because what happened with my right leg, the muscles pulled off the bone because of the cancer. I don’t know, I’m just afraid to go back because they (might) cut my arm off, I’d rather die with my boot on, you know what I mean?”

He said watching television and not thinking about tomorrow help get him through the day.

“I just don’t know what to do anymore,” Fottler said.

Comtois ends up getting to know the homeless just by how much he interacts with them. The longer the conversation, the more you learn about why they’re still out on the street, he said.

Comtois said they are still out on the street mainly for three reasons: They don’t know how to connect with resources available to them, they have burned bridges with certain resources or they choose not to use them.

“They don’t want to be on the street, but they don’t want to submit to anybody else’s rules either,” Comtois said.

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