There’s an old metal sign that hangs on the outside of our Sylvia building. It’s placed about five feet above our entrance door and about two feet to the left. It’s only about a foot square, so it doesn’t catch your eye when you walk in.
Indeed, I’d bet a good number of our workers, clients, and visitors have never even noticed it. It’s rusted, but still legible. It reads, “Fallout Shelter-Capacity 593.”
Those of us who are older (baby-boomers and beyond!) will remember what these signs signified. They broadcast the fact that our building—a large five-story, fortress-type structure—would open its’ doors to the public should we come under a nuclear attack. It was a place that people could escape to in hopes of surviving a nuclear blast.
Fallout is defined as, “The descent through the atmosphere of particles, often radioactive, stirred up by, or resulting from, a nuclear explosion.” And the term shelter is defined as, “that which covers or defends, a place of protection; a refuge.”
Thankfully, our building did not have to be used for those purposes. But I’m sure it was somewhat comforting to know that there was a building one could escape to should the “unthinkable” occur.
So what does this have to do with our present-day work of sheltering the homeless? A few ironic observations come to mind.
This building was never intended to actually “shelter” people on a regular, year-round basis. It was intended to be a place of employment for lower class folks in the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. The shelter aspect of the building was to be used only in the event of a nuclear emergency.
Now, in the 21st century, this building is being used to shelter people on a regular, year-round basis. But there is a difference. Our present-day capacity as set by the city of Chicago is 340.
So how did this building go from being a profitable place of employment to an old, run-down structure that offers temporary shelter for those who are not “making it” in our society?
The answer is simple, but not really simple. I presume that a once thriving industrial business (Mechanical Servants) ran into supply and demand issues, which in turn affected their bottom-line. They went out of business, but the building remained. And it remained essentially vacant for a number of years.
Fast forward to 2001. This huge vacant factory building just happened to be on the market. It also happened to be right across from our original Cornerstone shelter on Clifton Ave.
Chicago’s homeless situation dictated the need for more shelters. Chicago’s Department of Human Services, our primary financial supporter, agreed. And so, with their backing, we purchased this building, which became the Sylvia Center.
But why had this dramatic change occurred? It wasn’t because there was an imminent threat of war. It was because a different type of bomb had been detonated. This bomb could be labeled economic, and its fallout had led to so many commonplace men and women becoming homeless. What’s more, it seemed that nobody could place the blame on any one person or any one entity for allowing this “bomb” to go off.
I mean, a lot of folks saw it coming. And there were so many from all sectors of society who raised their voices—who pleaded for common sense answers to avoid the crisis at hand—but their desperate cries fell on deaf ears.
So that is the story of how our building came to fulfill a variety of purposes. It was a prime source of employment for a few decades. And it was a building that could be counted on to shelter a lot of folks, should a nuclear war occur.
But now it’s simply a shelter from all the “bombs” that society can’t seem to stop from exploding all across the neighborhoods of Chicago.
One thing’s for sure: if the bombs keep going off at the current rate, I think we’ll ALL have to start looking to purchase additional, old factory buildings to deal with the increasing homeless fallout.
Of course, they don’t have to be old “factory” buildings. They could even be no-frills SRO (single room only) dwellings (with supportive services included). But a solution such as this makes too much sense. And there doesn’t seem to be very much of that around these days.
I mean, a solution such as this might even largely eliminate the need for shelters, such as ours. But I just happen to know that we wouldn’t mind being forced to “close our doors” if folks really were moved into a simple room to call their own, with wrap-around services and caseworkers to assist them.
However, I’m not going to hold my breath, waiting for this type of solution to become the norm.
I mean, just because we as a society have the means and capabilities of employing solutions such as these doesn’t necessarily mean we will “do the right thing.”