Logan Square resident Gene Pellegrene is probably best known around the neighborhood as the owner of Artist Painters, a company with a unique business model and a different take on the employee-employer relationship. But in his spare time, Pellegrene has found a new cause that’s getting some attention: helping the homeless by preparing and delivering care packages around the neighborhood. He answered questions for LoganSquarist on his motivation, his experiences and ways that neighbors can help.
How did this project start? What inspired you to start thinking about the plight of the homeless?
This started back in April of this year. I have always donated clothes, food or money to the homeless I passed by, either on my way to work or in my neighborhood. I think a large part had to do with the emotional state I was in because I had a rough year financially. I had an arm injury, then surgery to correct the injury that left me only working about half the year. I own a small painting company, and taking me out of the equation as a painter meant I made less money and had to pay out more to get the projects completed. Financial stress is difficult to deal with and there was something very therapeutic about sharing what I had in the way of clothing and food that made the transition easier.
What goes into each care package? How do you distribute them?
The bags include ready-to-eat foods, toiletries and information. Some items vary, such as sewing kits, multivitamins, deodorant, first aid; these items rotate on a monthly basis. Generally, the care packages contain water, Gatorade, nutritional drinks, wet wipes, antacid tablets, medicated powder, lip balm, sunscreen, tissue, lotion, Ziploc bags, fresh fruit, gum, peanut butter sandwich crackers, apple sauce packets, a variety of granola bars, sweet and salty nut bars, Nutri-grain bars, Larabars, Clif bars, beef jerky, chocolate bars, roasted almonds, cashews or peanuts, trail mix, Rice Krispies Treats and a packet of information outlining different homeless shelters and resources in the city—addresses, numbers and what services they provide. So far 90 care packages have been made and delivered over a 19-week period.
Tell me a little bit about some of the homeless individuals you’ve met while you’ve been delivering care packages.
The homeless I’ve met are mostly men—there are a few women, but not many. They represent a broad age group, from 26 to over 60.
Roger, 52, is someone I have a lot of empathy for. He suffers from depression and for that reason he stays away from shelters. It’s unknown to me if he had an episode while at a shelter or if he’s just more comfortable staying away and keeping to himself. He’s been homeless for more than five years, living outside all year long.
He looks much older than he is. Most of his teeth are broken due to an assault he suffered some time ago. He also has what he refers to as some sort of “flesh-eating virus” on his leg. He walks with a painful limp and tells me it’s grown quite a bit in a year; sometimes he bandages it with dirty socks and electrical tape. I’ve added bandages and ointment to his packages to help him keep the wound clean and to keep it from spreading.
He talks about going to Cook County and when I asked him why he didn’t go sooner, his reply was that he thought he would be dead by now. He is so open and noticeably worn by life when I speak with him. He sometimes mentions the cruel things people say to him. He’s treated at times like a leper, less than human. I imagine as a human defense mechanism, you trick yourself into getting used to a situation or tolerating it just so you can continue on in that situation. That aspect of coping has got to be a major hurdle for a homeless individual. It’s hard for me to see Roger getting off the streets. I just try to provide an honest, caring ear and provide him with a few things to make his life a bit easier.
What might Logan Square residents be surprised to learn about the homeless in their community?
I guess they would be surprised by how difficult it is to get off the streets. Until you spend some time with these people—talking to them, getting to know them—you really are just grasping at their stories and making naive judgments about them and their plight. Some of them have mental illness, some got hooked on drugs, some just made some decisions that led them to being on the streets.
I try to imagine how hard it must be to get off of heroin, for example—how difficult it would be to kick heroin with a house, a phone, family, friends and a job—but how much harder would it be without the convenience of information, a phone, ready transportation, friends or family? These people are—in the truest sense of the word—surviving. A huge amount of their energy is spent surviving every day, dealing with addiction, hunger, the heat, the cold, the constant discomfort, the threats of violence, the isolation and loneliness.
What is the biggest lesson this project has taught you?
I’ve learned so much from this experience. Realizing the lessons is one aspect that drives me to keep doing it and to find ways of sharing it with others.
As an artist, I’m driven to experience life with a certain outlook and find ways of converting it in an accessible way to the public. I’ve learned to really appreciate my life and what I have, to seriously have profound appreciation for my life. I’ve learned to speak with others with a greater sincerity than before. The conversations with the homeless are so profound and sincere and different than the daily, quick small talk we engage in throughout the day.
I’ve discovered my capacity for kindness has grown. I will admit, in those first few weeks, I was filled with pride that I was doing something good and new. It was new to me to have some access to this “other world.” Over time, I realized what was once new and something to be proud of was simply “normal” and a reasonable expectation of how I should be.
I’m not special for doing this, this isn’t “amazing.” I spend 45 minutes a week putting together bags and another 20 minutes delivering them from my car window. Who doesn’t have that kind of spare time to dedicate to doing something that improves their lives and hopefully spreads a little kindness?
My definition of what is “special” and kind has broadened and it’s made me a better, kinder person to everyone around me. Everyone should be doing this. There would be no homeless if everyone did this because if they received the same support and assistance my friends have shown me, the empathy and understanding for the homeless would be so great as to completely do away with it.
How can people help support your efforts?
I urge everyone to make their own care packages and deliver them from their cars. Delivery of their care packages should be done safely and with a lot of thought put into it. If they aren’t comfortable with that, they can send me a Target or Costco gift card or make an online donation to a fundraiser currently active on the Fund Anything website. My goal is to raise enough money to continue making care packages for a total of a year in hopes awareness of the homeless problem will spark some attention and assistance in some form or another. I will continue to make videos (see below) and interview the homeless, as well as keep an ongoing blog on my personal Facebook page in the notes section.
In addition to contributing to your fundraiser, are there other ways people can help?
People can help by viewing these people as human beings. Disregard any concept of who deserves your attention or help or who doesn’t. Treat these people with caring and maybe talk to one of them, take them some food or some cold water when it’s hot or a blanket or sweater when it’s cold. The best thing I ever did in this instance was to put myself in their shoes and ask myself, “What would I need in this situation?”
How can community members offer their long-term support for helping the homeless?
In my opinion, these people need to be given a certain number of things that are difficult for them to get on their own. To approach them, with assistance, as a stranger, there needs to be trust—consistent, established trust. When you have their trust, you can give them information and maybe a little confidence and help with the human need for connection. To me that’s the beginning of them getting off the streets—getting identifications, getting a mailing address, getting medical help or help with addiction.
It was never my goal to get someone off the streets, but the support and awareness being generated is exciting when you think about the possibilities. I’ve had to set boundaries with myself as I get closer and closer to these people. I plan on continuing these care packages, delivering them weekly, though now I prefer to deliver them by hand and talk for a bit. I think as long as I find ways to share this experience with the public and raise awareness, people may change their outlook of the homeless and be more willing to give more of themselves and lend some assistance.
Photo: Gene Pellegrene