An Interview with Skokie's Homeless

Ramesh Shah is homeless and living in Skokie. The 59-year-old once had a job and lived in the village with his brother. Today, however, Shah is bracing himself for the upcoming harsh weather.

Ramesh Shah is among the few homeless living in Skokie.

Today, the 59-year-old is at Aok Gourmet to eat lunch and talk with Skokie Patch. We offered to buy, and Shah is having the lunch special: a sandwich, side or chips and canned drink. There's a problem, however, Shah's unsure what he wants to eat.

"No meat," he said.

Shah then grabs a menu and begins to ask an employee about the veggie sandwich. After agreeing to something green and with eggplant Shah begins taking off his coats.

First, he unzips a large green cotton coat, followed by a black puffy coat and then a brown coat. By the time Shah sits down, he's wearing a single coat, a hoodie and several shirts underneath. His body now looks feeble, but well groomed, with a neatly trimmed mustache and a full head of hair that's cut short.

He said he gets his hair cut for $5 at Suzie's Hair Salon near Oakton Street and Crawford Avenue. Sometimes, he's a few dollars short and the customers pitch in so Shah can get his buzz cut.

Outside the restaurant is his dolly-like shopping cart. It's carrying four garbage bags, and among his prized possessions are some colored pencils, crayons, a painting and several poems that he's written, he said.

Until 2001, the 59-year-old said he lived with his brother in an apartment complex near Dempster and Lee streets in Skokie. Back then, he worked at large grocery store in Niles that's now closed, he said.

"They would give me work outside. Cart pushing, cleaning, sometimes the cash register," he said. "I became sick and had no health insurance. I needed two days off."

Shah's manager said he could take the two days off as long as he had a written note from a doctor saying he was sick. With no health insurance, Shah took the days off but never saw a physician.

"They let me go," he said.

The timing couldn't have been worse. His brother left to go back to his native India. Shah figured he would find another job and manage. Unfortunately, that never happened and after being kicked out of his apartment, he took what money he had and stayed at a motel.

That money, too, ran out and with that, Shah was homeless.

Still, Shah has had some luck since then. He found work in Michigan as a graveyard-shift stock boy for several months. There was also a brief stint at a similar job in Naperville.

But for the last two years, Shah has been sleeping in Skokie parks. Today, it's a sun-shining, cold day. Not bad for mid-December, but Shah knows the real winter is drawing near.

"The cold," he said with a brief pause. "It's coming."

Surviving Chicago's winter -

Last year, Shah's winter was straight chilling. 

"There was this Greek man - I don't remember his name - but he gave me some money and a two month bus pass," Shah said.

Bus pass in hand, Shah would go down to Golf Mill Mall and wander inside its warmth. Other times, he would go to Village Crossing. At 11 p.m., he was at Jewel shopping for "two or three hours" with what money he had.

"I have some Pakistani and Indian friends that live in Skokie," he said. "They give me money sometimes."

After Jewel, he would usually ride the train until 4 a.m. That was followed with a long walk to a McDonalds, which opened its doors at 5 a.m.

"When it is minus degrees and very low temperature, I was feeling, 'What is going to happen to me?'"

Shah said his favorite time came when the Skokie Public Library opened its doors.

"I enjoy reading. I spend a lot of time reading books, magazines," he said. "Reading makes me feel good."

Until "the real winter" arrives, Shah is sleeping at Gross Point Park. He said he's noticed maybe two or three other homeless people in Skokie that sleep at parks or spend time at the library.

"I don't know where they go at night," he said. "I think some of them have a place, others sleep at the park."

A homeless man's dreams -

"Many people are angry with me," he said. "[Some] will give me two dimes, but throw it at me. Others, I think are racist at me."

Shah wants a job. In fact, when asked what his one wish would be, he said, "Just enough money to have a peaceful life. Have clothes and a job."

Some of the problems Shah faces with getting employment are obvious: He has no nice clothes, nowhere to shower and change to make himself look presentable. But there are other problems, too.

"I lost my Social Security card. I have no Social Security card, no documentation," Shah said. "[In the winter,] some people I know let me work for two [or] three months at a gas station. They don't ask about documentation."

With winter also comes the holiday season, and while Shah believes in no particular religion, he would like to celebrate New Year's Eve.

"I don't feel," he said. "It makes me sad. I have Indian people that celebrate New Year's. I can't have that. It makes me sad."

Shah said he's never been married and has no kids. He said he hasn't spoken to his brother in several years.


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Floyd Freeman December 14, 2012 at 10:23 PM
Hard story to write...........question for the interviewer would be, what value is this story adding to your reader or the person ? Maybe a few local Resorces could have been mentioned to give readers or the person some area of support for the people in need. I would like to think you purpose for articles is to institute positive change and awareness . Floyd Freeman
George Slefo December 15, 2012 at 05:00 AM
@ Floyd - First, thank you for the comment. I grew up in Skokie and Ramesh Shah is the first homeless person I've met in the area. Indeed, positive change would be an added benefit, but Shah never hinted or expressed that he wanted help nor is it my place to decide if he does. If readers want to do something, I sincerely feel that's great. However, my job was to tell Shah's story as winter approaches. Best, George
Karen Feldberg December 15, 2012 at 08:55 PM
Such a sad, beautifully written article. Congratulations, George, on handling the subject with such sensitivity and respect for Mr. Shah. I do hope he seeks help and will be able to once-again provide for himself and be out-of-danger living on the street.
Skip December 29, 2012 at 06:16 PM
George, this is a well written story. I'd like to see more reporting about the poor and homeless.
Kathleen Mchugh January 01, 2013 at 08:15 PM
Thank you George, I'm sure someone will find Mr Shah and life for him will get better as for myself I will look for him if he is still around Gross Point Park I carry things in the trunk of my car for anyone that can use my help Hoping and praying for a better year for everyone


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