BUCKTOWN — When a bus bench was removed from the corner of Armitage and Damen avenues this weekend, commuters lost a place to sit — but Maria lost her bed.
Maria, who is experiencing homelessness, has been sleeping on the bench for two years without any issues, she said Monday. But sometime this weekend it was removed, to the dismay of both Maria and the Bucktown neighbors who have gotten to know her over the years.
One of those neighbors even replaced the bench Sunday, which Maria appreciated as the cold and snow set in Monday.
She said she wasn’t sure what neighbor had brought the bench, but she said she was grateful for the help.
“They don’t tell me [why],” she said of the decision to remove the bench. “The bench was always here.”
It is unclear when or why the bus bench was removed. On Tuesday, a spokesperson with the CTA said the agency did not remove the bench. The Chicago Department of Transportation manages the city’s street furniture contract with JC Decaux, a private company, the spokesperson said.
Maria, who is originally from Mexico, told Block Club she has been homeless in Chicago for about 10 years. She moved to the city 30 years ago after briefly living in New York.
She became homeless after her ex-husband abandoned her, she said. Block Club is not using her full name to protect her safety.
At first, Maria said she slept in churches across the city. In recent years, she has called the busy Bucktown intersection home.
Maria may not pay rent or a have a mortgage in Bucktown, but many residents consider her a neighbor as much as anyone.
On Sunday, a neighbor posted about the missing bench in a neighborhood Facebook group. Within hours, dozens of people chimed in.
One person suggested running to IKEA to purchase a cot. Another offered to move Maria into their yard.
Eventually, neighbor Lenny Skorcz dropped off an old wooden bench.
Bucktown resident Jeannette Cooper said she was glad to see her neighbors step up on behalf of Maria.
Every so often, Maria’s specific needs are communicated in a neighborhood Facebook group. Those needs are usually immediately filled by neighbors, Cooper said.
“I think our neighborhood is creative,” she said. “We are good at having individuals do small things that create a big thing.”
Alan Ericksen, a lifelong Bucktown resident, said he wanted to know if Ald. Scott Wasguespack (32nd) was aware of the bench’s removal. Wasguespack could not immediately be reached.
“The community stepping up is awesome,” Ericksen said. “She may be a small inconvenience to bus riders. And some may say an eyesore. But I’d rather have her there than the typical homeless person.”
Dawn Lawkowski-Keller, an attorney and a neighborhood leader with the Bucktown Community Organization, has known Maria for three years. When she first met Maria, she was sleeping on a bus bench near Damen and Churchill, Lawkowski-Keller said.
With the help of neighbor Maura Daly, Lawkowski-Keller learned Maria’s life story.
Together, Daly and Lawkowski-Keller have found and are in contact with Maria’s family in Mexico.
For the last couple winters, the duo, who operate the Bucktown Community Organization’s Thrive Committee, have coordinated Maria’s sleeping arrangements, which have ranged from church pews to neighbors’ private offices.
They women also coordinate donation efforts, which have resulted in a pair of used Ugg boots and a new North Face jacket for Maria.
“People were completely generous,” Lawkowski-Keller said. “Obviously she doesn’t have an income. People have been giving her meals. She’s made it by the grace of people in the neighborhood.”
“Really, she’s a bother to no one. I think that the people that want to see this as a problem will make it a problem. … I just imagine someone figured out who to contact at the CTA and made it happen,” Lawkowski-Keller said of the bench.
Tuesday will be sunny, but the high temperature is expected to hit just 22 degrees and break a record for the lowest high temperature in that day’s history.
On Monday, Maria told Block Club she would appreciate food from neighbors. She doesn’t have a favorite food, she said, but she likes her coffee with cream and sugar.
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