Homeless advocate cleaning up Hyde Park streets

Arlene Roberts (left), who homeless advocate Sharon Carney is helping to find housing, said she became homeless after losing her job as a bus attendant at Skinner West Elementary School on the city’s West Side. – Wendell Hutson

By Wendell Hutson
Contributing Writer

When Sharon Carney is not running her family-owned business, Carney Cleaning Services, she is assisting the homeless getting off Hyde Park streets.

The 45-year-old wife, mother and grandmother has lived in Hyde Park for more than 40 years and said she has always enjoyed helping people. As a little girl, Carney said she watched her parents and grandparents volunteer their time at churches and for other causes to help the less fortunate.

For the last seven years Carney, in partnership with Bank of America and Boston Market, has spent her Thanksgiving holiday providing free meals to the homeless. She has now gone beyond the annual holiday dinner to help the homeless obtain the documents they need to find housing.

“When I was a kid my grandmother would always tell me to be nice to the homeless because everyone is a paycheck away from being broke,” recalled Carney.

Each morning when Carney leaves home to head to her residential and commercial cleaning business at 5330 S. Harper Ave. she sees the homeless up bright and early.

“[The homeless] are the only ones up at three and four o’clock in the morning. And when you see someone everyday you will eventually develop a relationship with them,” said Carney. “Hyde Park does not have a large homeless population but it does have a group of people living on the street and I want to change that.”

Using her own resources Carney drives individuals to the Secretary of State Office and the Social Security office to apply for an ID; provide clothing and assist them getting stable housing.

“You can’t do anything without an ID. Many of them do not even know how to get downtown,” she added.

Homelessness is a national problem caused by various reasons and Carney said no one is immune from it.

“It could happen to me or any middle class family regardless of your education or economic status,” said Carney. “Never say it can’t happen to you, because, at the blink of an eye, your life could change for the worse.”

Drug addiction, mental illness, death of a loved one, job loss and incarceration are some reasons why people have become homeless, according to Carney.

For Arlene Roberts job loss led to her becoming homeless and living on the streets of Hyde Park for the last seven years.

“I used to be a bus attendant at Skinner West Elementary School on the West Side, but I was laid off 10 years ago,” explained Roberts, 57. “After that I was staying with my ‘old man’ [boyfriend] but he passed away and then I was evicted from his apartment shortly after.”

One of biggest challenges these days for Roberts is finding a safe place to sleep at night.

“It gets kind of paranoid for me, because sometimes I hear and see things at night and that makes me scared,” said Roberts. “I went to Loop College [now Harold Washington College], so I have a little education: But I am still homeless.”

And although Roberts has two adult daughters living in Chicago, she still remains homeless.

“I stay with them sometimes when times get really bad. But they are both married and I don’t get along with their husbands,” said Roberts as she fought back tears. “I stay away from my daughters because I don’t want to cause any problems in their marriages. I have people like Mrs. Carney helping me get back on my feet and in due time I’ll be alright.”

Carney said all are welcome at her annual Thanksgiving meal event, a formal sit-down dinner similar to the one many share with their families each year.

“You don’t need to be homeless to get a free Thanksgiving meal with us,” explained Carney. “Boston Market in Hyde Park [1424 E. 53rd St.] hosted our Thanksgiving dinner last year and provided space for us to serve people while it remained open to the public. We had individuals like veterans who were not homeless but still came to eat with us.”