Even as I stride up and down a stretch of Michigan Avenue, north from Monroe Street to Wacker Drive and back south again, I see familiar beggars-men and women mostly, mostly black, mostly men who look like me. Swaddled in layers of wool and tattered gloves-often plump, sometimes swollen and scarred, I see them. And yet, I realize that so many of us don't.
The homeless-often invisible, like the wind, constant, sometimes relentless, calling, and always hard for me to ignore. I hand some change here and there. Sometimes a dollar or two, though I am not necessarily a Good Samaritan. In some ways, I feel I owe.
And while my family-my mother and stepfather and three siblings-were never homeless, we often seemed to teeter on the edge-life's consequences and our socioeconomic circumstances as unforgiving as Chicago's winters.
Today, even as a man, a journalist and professor-a life and in some ways a world removed from those days of hardship and struggle-I can still feel the cold emptiness of staring into a barren refrigerator as a little boy; still see exhaust pouring from my mouth as I speak in our frozen apartment; still feel the eyes of my classmates roaming over my hand-me-downs; still feel the humiliating sting of poverty and the loss of hope when it has fizzled like the last breath of summer.
And yet, I know now that back in those days in K-Town, we were blessed, even when supper was fried potato patties and our treats reduced to thinly-buttered sugar toast. For we were never homeless, like those I see so much of nowadays and who, in the streets of even this city of broad shoulders, face the brutality of the elements like no other season of the year than as when the city turns cold.
So as a professor at Roosevelt University, teaching the capstone undergraduate journalism course, which focuses on producing a project, it was clear in my mind back in January what subject I should choose for my students' exploration this semester: Homelessness. My students' task: To explore from various angles with a zoom lens the issue, seeking out the agencies and men and women who seek to make a difference in the lives of the homeless and also those people who find themselves without a permanent place to live.
With the economy slumping and news of foreclosures and layoffs rising, homelessness seemed a timely subject wrought with possibilities for budding young journalists. It also seemed the kind of subject that students at an urban university with a "social justice" mantra ought to be delving into for all sorts of reasons-among them the possibility of exposure to a world beyond their own and to their potential as journalistic storytellers to make the invisible visible, to make the "inhuman" human.
For me, the task has meant challenging students to get "the facts," to move beyond their comfort zone, to slash and burn with red their stories and to push, poke, prod and encourage, being fully aware of their potential and of the continued need in the future-aside from the technological glitz and glam sweeping journalism-for journalists who have the ability to do what has long been its staple and that I suspect shall ultimately be its salvation: Tell good stories, accurately and, as my mentor at the University of Illinois at Urbana, the late-Bob Reid, urged me, to pursue them with passion.
My students' project is now complete, the cold mostly faded now and the scent of a new season risen. And I have seen evidence of successes, of wonderfully human stories-none more evident than in their words read aloud after they returned from an assignment one night during the recently ended semester.
And this much also was clear as I stood, listening, moved at times, unbeknownst to them, nearly to tears, as poetically, each of them said, in so many words, 'Now, I see.'
And for us journalists, that's more than half the battle.