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YYY: Lost Between Two Worlds: Chicago’s Polish Homeless

Lost Between Two Worlds: Chicago’s Polish Homeless

 StreetWise (USA) 24 May 2019

(Originally published: 10/2009) The Polish American Association offers refuge to those, like Aleksandr, who are slipping through the cracks of the system. The PAA, founded in Chicago in 1922 has always focused on helping immigrants. In the early part of the twentieth century, the PAA helped immigrant youth to stay out of gangs in the city. Other programs soon emerged. In the next eighty-seven years, the PAA never ran out of work—Chicago’s Polish community only grew. It is now sometimes considered the largest Polish city outside of Poland. But times are hard for the Polish diaspora.  - By Brenna Daldorph


Courtesy of StreetWise

In 1980, Aleksandr came to the United States with a tourist visa and a dream. The tourist visa soon ran out, but the dream didn't. Aleksandr continued to stay here, working and paying taxes, though an illegal resident.


Now, thirty years later, the dream has finally dried up. Sixty-six years old and weak from recent health problems, Aleksandr is unable to work. Only now that he is unable to work is America shutting the doors on him. Though he has worked here for thirty years, he has no right to healthcare or a nursing home. He lost his apartment and his savings went into healthcare. The friends he made abandoned him. Soon after, he was staying in a shelter. He was alone.


Luckily, someone referred him to the Polish American Association. Case workers there are helping him to purchase a ticket to return to Poland, where he will be able to claim benefits. But that is just about all he will be able to claim. His wife left him during their long separation, using the money he sent to set up a new life with a new boyfriend in Sweden. His family are mostly dead. He lost contact with his son, who was a boy when he left. He loves everything about America. He never thought he'd return to Poland, least of all broke.


"I am ashamed to go back," he said. Aleksandr is one of roughly ____ men who visit the Polish American Association yearly, many in the same situation. Displaced by their age, their skill level, the recession or subject to alcoholism after years of loneliness, their American dreams are shattered, says Dorota Lewandowska, a worker at the PAA.

"Everyone comes to America thinking that their life will be better than in Poland," she said. "No one leaves family and friends in their country thinking I will end up homeless and alcoholic. They always think that they will make some money, do better. But sometimes the problems get worse - especially the loneliness."


In this time of need, Aleksandr and his cohorts are finding that the words of Emma Lazarus, penned in 1883 and inscribed on the statue of Liberty do not apply to them:


Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"



Polish American Association


The Polish American Association offers refuge to those, like Aleksandr, who are slipping through the cracks of the system. The PAA, founded in Chicago in 1922 has always focused on helping immigrants. In the early part of the twentieth century, the PAA helped immigrant youth to stay out of gangs in the city. Other programs soon emerged. In the next eighty-seven years, the PAA never ran out of work-Chicago's Polish community only grew. It is now sometimes considered the largest Polish city outside of Poland.  Thus, the PAA is still providing specialized aid to at-risk Polish immigrants in the city. In 1986, in response to a growing homeless population, the PAA opened up Turning Point Day Shelter, a place for homeless men of Polish or Eastern European origin to get the appropriate help they need.

"To navigate the system is difficult and to find the worker who will help them in their native language is difficult," Magdalena Dolas said. "Even though Chicago has a large Polish community, not many places have Polish workers." At the PAA, Chicago's at-risk Poles find a home.



Turning Point Day Shelter

Around a large table, the men at the shelter gather around a huge meal of steaming pierogies, potatoes and meat. The smell of fresh parsley wafts through the open door of the kitchen where several elderly Polish ladies begin washing up. The shelves behind them are stocked with bags of pretzels and jams, donations from local Polish delis. One room over, small tables are stacked with Polish books and papers. The most important thing, says the staff, is to make the men feel at home.


"Immigration is not easy for anyone, whether you are successful or not," Lewandowska said. "We are immigrants-we understand them. For every ethnic group, this is important-- to be helped by people who know."


Turning Point Day Shelter is open from 7 am to 5 pm. The men spend their days here in Alcoholics Anonymous classes, meeting with doctors or applying for jobs and houses. At night, they return to the Franciscan House of Joseph and Mary. There are other places throughout the city who open their doors to Poles. But none of them offer the same services.


"What is unique for our agency is that we are a one-stop shop-we can really provide lots of assistance for each person who stops." Lewandowska said. "They may come here with one issue, but throughout the interview, we find out about other things. We don't have to refer people outside."


The PAA offers 31 separate programs - ranging from ESL classes to counseling to immigration consultations. The program also provides services for the local community from a clothing bank to a food pantry.  According to staff, the PAA is the only non-profit in the area. In the office located between the kitchen and the common room, Lewandowska and her assistant are making constant phone calls-orchestrating funds and doctors' visits and programs.


In the next room, the men are taking an after-lunch pause. Some go outside for a smoke while others drift into the common room where an old film about Polish barons is playing.


A young girl arrives, toting a bag of breathalizer tubes. One by one, the men are called into the office. They grin sheepishly and offer mighty puffs after the count of "one, two, three." The girl checks the readings. Today, all are clean, but alcoholism is a continuous problem for many of these men.





Lewandowska estimates that 90% of her clients have problems that are drug or alcohol related; the rest, like Aleksandr are victims of health problems. One factor is that Polish culture treats drinking differently.


"Alcoholism was not viewed as an illness in Poland for years-it was viewed as a behavior," said Lewandowska. "Someone might be drinking a lot but who isn't? The tolerance for heavy drinkers was high." Many of the men at Turning Point came to the United States alone, without their families. Looking for friends and lacking familial obligations, many would go out drinking.


"Just imagine the guy is here, he is all alone, he works hard, the family is in Poland, he rents an apartment with some other guys," Dolas said. "Year after year, he'd spending time drinking every Friday, Saturday, Sunday with the guys who are friends."


As the years passed, things at home were bound to change. "You start getting letters from home, your marriage is breaking up," Dolas said. "You aren't going to go to a counselor, you are going to go to the liquor store to try to help yourself."

As loneliness increased, so does drinking. For many, it becomes a self-induced cycle. Drinking causes decreased stability. Sometimes this can lead to job loss; other times it is the other way around-job loss inspires drinking.  Moreover, as the man's condition worsens, many cut even more ties with home.


"You want to take things to [the family back home] and show them some success," Lewandowska said. "This is why the ties are broken. The person is so ashamed, they don't want to write and let them know that they are on the streets."  Thus, the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are not only in Polish, they are culturally specific. Most of the men still refuse to accept that they have a problem.



Funding Cuts

Specialized programs like Alcoholics Anonymous may be cut with impending government funding cuts. Already, the organization has minimized the shelter staff to _____. Other programs, like the outreach worker who used to follow up on calls about Polish homeless on the Southside, a place of former Polish settlement, have been cut. The PAA, according to staff, one of the only non-profits in the community, also runs a food pantry. Many new people have begun to utilize their services-so many that they had to limit by zip code which families could come.


Government cuts will have massive impact on PAA as the organization is 80% government funded.


Even the twenty percent coming from private donors is shrinking as they, too, are hit by the recession.  Lewandowska looks at a large symbolic check displayed on an easel in the downstairs conference room. Last year, they received a grant from Jewel, something that she doesn't think is going to happen again this year. "We should take that down," she says, "It makes me sad."

The staff is starting to feel a little bit like the men upstairs: unsure of the next step, with doors closing to the right, left and center.


Where To From Here


The shelter feels like limbo. Some, like Marek, ___, are waiting to land a job in rough economic times. He has applied to employers all over the city, using the addresses of various friends until he can get a place of his own or move back in with his wife in Skokie.


Since Marek's arrival in the US as a teenager, life here has been a struggle. A tattoo on his arm states Laugh now, cry later. "It's the story of my life," he said. Marek has been in and out of jail and has fought addiction several times. He'd love to go back to Poland, but he has a wife and two children here. Now ready and determined to turn his life around, he can't even find a job.


Others, like Aleksandr, can't work. Eddy, another elderly man, cracks a wide smile when Marek teasingly calls him a concentration camp vicitim; but it's true, he looks old and frail and not too competitive in the work force.


Most men at the shelter are deeply ashamed to be here. One man, Kris, has a son who lives only miles from here, but he doesn't want him to know that. He can't find work and he has already stayed at the shelter for months.


Others, like Aleksandr are considering going back to Poland. No one wants to.

But some, especially those who are undocumented, will. The PAA has funded returns for several years for men who are homeless, undocumented, and don't qualify for benefits here.


Recently, the city of New York started offering compensation for immigrant families who would be willing to return to their respective home countries. According to sources, no provisions were made to ensure that the families would be taken care of once they returned to their home countries. At the PAA, men are encouraged to make contact with friends and family they may have stopped speaking to years ago, in an attempt to find someone who will care for them. And so the painful process begins of contacting long-lost relatives and telling them about their situation. The hope is to find a friend, a brother or even an ex-mother-in-law, in one case, who can take them in.


But considering this return is difficult. Even if they may lack friends and family here, most have nothing to return to after years of life abroad. The hope they carried with them when they arrived at America's Golden Door is left behind. Face silhouetted against a bright window covered with lace curtains, Aleksandr bowed his head. "I am ashamed."


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