Earlier this year, when Gene Pellegrene packed up three bags with clothes from his closet and food from his pantry to give to the homeless, he had no idea it would be the start of a life-changing experience.
Now, 10 months and 200 bags later, the Indiana native and Chicago artist is on a mission to break down stereotypes and gain a better understanding of the subculture of homelessness.
In Chicago, there are about 170,000 homeless people, Pellegrene said. He lives in the Logan Square neighborhood and sees the same people panhandle at intersections, as there is a territorial aspect to it.
A few times a year, he would donate any unused clothes he had. But 10 months ago he decided to add some food and water, whatever was in his pantry.
And from those first few bags grew a project where he now distributes five to eight bags with about 30 items each week, and feeds 10 to 15 people.
“It just took off,” he said. “I can’t believe how it snowballed.”
Pellegrene will bring his efforts locally this weekend with a collection event at 6 p.m. Sunday at Brunzies bar.
In a combination birthday celebration — his 40th is Jan. 4 — and charity event, he will collect donations of winter wear and other gently used items of clothing while he is home for the holidays.
A portion of the items will benefit the needy locally, with the rest used for his project.
Pellegrene's initiative grew as he posted pictures on Facebook about his experience, trying to break down stereotypes.
Through the project, Pellegrene and Nathan Schill have filmed interviews with some of the people he has met and established a relationship with them over time.
“If we are going to help these people, we have to understand what they are going through,” he said.
The five videos shed light on the faces of homelessness.
“My point is not to make any judgments. … You don’t know anyone’s story. … Why they made the decisions they made,” he said. “I don’t focus on that stuff.”
The videos are meant to show people that their assumptions, stereotypes and judgments about homelessness are wrong.
Things, he said, that he also once thought were true.
“I’ve been amazed what I didn’t know,” he said. “I thought I was a pretty empathetic individual, but I realized I made the same assumptions.”
He is setting up a website for information about his project at care-bags.org. For now, it links to his Facebook page until the site is finished. The website will showcase the videos, which are also on YouTube, and have information on how to help.
In the last 10 months, Pellegrene has learned the misconceptions people, and society as a whole, have about the homeless.
“It’s kind of ridiculous. We put homeless people below prisoners in our mind, in our society,” he said. “We know (prison) is a hostile environment, but they are getting fed, not treated cruel or unusually.”
There just isn’t much compassion for the homeless, he said. Society treats them poorly, and people think ‘they can just go to a shelter,’” he said.
In reality, it’s not that easy. Shelters are only open for limited amounts of time. Thieves will pilfer belongings, so the homeless must “sleep with one eye open,” he said. They are told to shower, and are frisked — things, he said, “that make them feel below human.”
“It’s not like the shelters you see on television,” he said.
The project has been featured in newspapers, on the Huffington Post and on television. Pellegrene has received awards. He’s visited schools to speak, and is starting a fundraiser for placement of a community care box in a coffee house where people can drop things off — or take things to deliver themselves.
But for Pellegrene, one of the most rewarding aspects is how it has helped him grow as a person.
“I have this weekly reminder that I’m pretty happy,” he said. “I know it’s from this experience that I’m having. I know I talk to people differently. I’m more engaged with people. I’m a better listener.”