PORTAGE PARK — Karl Shook was homeless, confined to a wheelchair and resigned to spending his days hanging out along Cicero Avenue near Six Corners.
Shook, who lost his apartment on the Northwest Side as part of a dispute with a landlord, became a familiar sight in front of the stores near Belle Plaine Avenue, drawing the attention of both shop owners and passersby.
But instead of calling the police or telling Shook to get lost, nearby business owners paid for Shook to stay in a series of motel rooms and worked to find him a new home.
Four months after the Six Corners Business Association began helping him, Shook moved into a room in an Uptown single room occupancy hotel and is now looking for a permanent home.
“I really appreciated the help,” Shook said. “I was really surprised that they helped.”
For the last three years, the Six Corners Business Association has worked with Hands to Help Ministries to provide a safety net for homeless people in and around Six Corners.
The business group pays $3,125 per year to help cover the cost of an outreach worker to spend 20 hours a week helping people who live near Six Corners. Outreach can be as simple as a bus pass or a month’s rent to finding a new place to live or getting into substance abuse treatment.
Ed Bannon, the executive director of the Six Corners Business Association, said the effort has been successful in reducing the number of homeless men and women around the shopping district, which has been struggling for years to reinvent itself.
“This is the best way, the most humane way to deal with homelessness,” Bannon said. “We could just call the cops, but they would be back the next day. This way, we get to the root of the problem.”
The program has been good for businesses at Six Corners, which seen several new restaurants and arts organizations open in recent months. The business association is funded by money from the area’s tax increment financing district.
“Frankly, if it wasn’t good for the businesses, it wouldn’t be happening,” said Bannon, who drove Shook from motel to motel, as he worked with LaPointe to find a place for him to live.
Hands to Help started seven years ago, when homelessness was a huge problem in Portage Park and Jefferson Park, said the Rev. Kara Wagner Scherer, president of the ministry and pastor of St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Ald. Tim Cullerton (38th), whose district includes Six Corners, said he saw Shook every day for months on his way downtown.
“It’s nice to see the community step up,” Cullerton said.
As LaPointe worked with Shook, she helped him overcome a number of small obstacles that had made finding a new place to live impossible.
“He needed a state identification card because without it you can’t apply for housing,” LaPointe said. “We helped him get a phone and a computer.”
The group usually encourages the homeless men and women to stay in a shelter, but that wasn’t a possibility for the wheelchair-bound Shook. The only accessible shelter in Chicago has been full for months, LaPointe said.
“We just decided that this is what we had to do as the weather got colder,” LaPointe said.
The lack of shelter space wasn’t the only challenge LaPointe faced in trying to find Shook home.
“At times, I called it a nightmare,” LaPointe said, adding that being low income and disabled are “two huge strikes” against someone looking for somewhere to live.
Eventually, LaPointe found the room in Uptown through another outreach worker and arranged for Shook to move in. But before Shook could move in, LaPointe realized his wheelchair was too big and wouldn’t fit through the door.
So Bannon posted a note on the Portage Park page on Everyblock asking if anyone had a narrower wheelchair that they could donate. Within hours, Bannon had received a wheelchair — along with offers of money and other items to furnish his new room.
“People stepped up right away,” Bannon said. “It was really heart warming that it was resolved so quickly.”
While Shook is settling into his new room, he’s still looking for an apartment that he can afford and that is accessible for someone in a wheelchair. He’s also unhappy in Uptown, after spending most of his life on the Northwest Side.
“I really wish he had been able to stay in the area,” LaPointe said. “There is just not enough affordable, senior or subsidized housing on the Northwest Side.”