Lloyd Scroggins’ husky rendition of “My Girl” filled the tourist-crowded street, echoing off the windowed walls of the Crain Communications building on the corner of Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street.
On the overcast, 60-degree October afternoon, his baritone voice and a wide, welcoming smile gave some truth to the lyrics “when it’s cold outside, I’ve got the month of May.”
He wore a faded red T-shirt and a pair of old jeans with a lime green glove covering his left hand. Sometimes, he sang and clapped. Others, he called out to the sea of suits to spare some change for a disabled ex-Marine and Vietnam War veteran.
At his feet, he had a medium-sized cardboard box stuffed with spare clothes, an American flag, a granola bar and a single red rose.
“I make people listen to me — even when they don’t give me anything,” he said. “Every now and then, your song touches someone’s heart enough to make them help you along the way.”
For the last year, the 62-year-old recovering alcoholic has been trying to turn his life around. But Scroggins is still stuck on the streets, singing and begging to make enough money for a two-night stay in one of the city’s men’s hotels, which are temporary, cheap dormitory-style rooms for low-income travelers and Chicagoans.
AN ALMOST-BRIGHT START
Scroggins has always been a performer. He grew up on the South Side, in Bronzeville’s Ida B. Wells Homes — a public housing project about a mile away from the White Sox’s U.S. Cellular Field. He was the oldest son of 13 children.
He sang with his sisters in grade school talent shows. When his sisters hit their teens and boys took precedence, Scroggins joined a Jackson Five-style group called The Merchants. He got his first taste of small-time stardom with the group. At one performance at Hyde Park Academy High School, a group of screaming girls crowded the stage.
He also had his first taste of alcohol with the group.
One night after rehearsal, Scroggins explained, the four guys dropped him off in front of his parents’ house. His mom caught him in the front yard — drunk.
“She told me not be like my daddy was and packed me off to the service,” Scroggins said.
From 1971 to 1975, Scroggins served in the Marine Corps, reaching the rank of private first class. While stationed at Kaneohe Bay in Hawaii, he was dishonorably discharged for punching a sergeant in the face after an argument over Scroggins’ relationship with a Hawaiian woman, whom he later married. The marriage didn’t last long, though.
After his discharge and quick divorce, Scroggins moved back to Chicago. He ran through a string of printing jobs and relationships until alcohol and substance abuse derailed his life, and he ended up on the streets.
THE DECK IS STACKED
Scroggins’ situation makes him a statistic to some. A Chicago Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) 2013-2014 study found that there are about 64,047 single homeless adults in Chicago — that’s 46 percent of all homeless people in the city. Families and people under 18 make up the other 54 percent.
A number of things contribute to homelessness. Poverty, decreased sup- port for charities that help the homeless, mental illness, domestic violence, substance abuse and a lack of housing, affordable health care and employment options all impact the number of people who live on the streets across the United States.
Plus, living in Chicago is expensive. To afford a two-bedroom apartment, the average person has to earn at least $18.83 an hour at a full-time job, according to the CCH. A steady minimum wage job only pays $8.25 an hour in Illinois.
Still, the idea that some homeless people will use money to buy drugs and alcohol rather than paying for food, clothes or shelter keeps many from handing out their spare change.
Joe Straitiff, a junior environmental studies and international studies double major, is a leader with Loyola’s Labre Homeless Ministry, an organization that builds relationships with Chicago’s homeless population through conversation and food. He said he’s seen a lot of apathy toward the homeless.
“I hate to say it, but I think there’s a majority of negative opinions about homeless people and their lifestyles,” the 20-year-old said.
Since he was a freshman, Straitiff has spent most of his Thursday nights with other Labre volunteers in downtown Chicago visiting both familiar faces and the newly homeless.
“People only understand their own lifestyles,” he said. “That’s especially true in downtown Chicago and the Loop. A lot of people are really well-off there; it’s hard for them to wrap their minds around that, for some people, life works in unfortunate ways.”
To make matters worse, what little homeless people have is often easily stolen. Straitiff said that homeless people usually try to avoid shelters not because there isn’t enough room but because they’re worried their things will be stolen.
For homeless people, their backpacks are their lives.
Scroggins said he had to learn how to defend himself on the streets. He’s been jumped by “gangbangers” before. It was something that came naturally to him, though.
“I grew up with eight sisters,” he said. “My job was to protect them, even from my own father.
A HOMELESS NETWORK
Scroggins decided to change his life after his 93-year-old mother passed away last year. He got involved with Alcoholics Anonymous soon after her death, which also brought singing back to his life.
“One day, I went around Merchandise Mart,” he said. “I started singing [“My Girl”], and instead of screaming at somebody, I screamed that last note of the song. It allowed me to mourn in a way that I could only through singing.”
Now, Scroggins has built a community for himself. When he can’t make it into a hotel, he bands together with four other homeless men. They gather anything metal — spoons, wheelbarrows, baskets — and sell it to a junkyard. With the extra money they have earned from the scrap metal, they bought a TV and hot plate that they hook up to a light pole so they can cook and watch movies outside.
Scroggins also keeps a CTA performer’s permit, which hangs from his belt. It allows him to sing legally at four assigned areas in the Loop subway stations. The permit costs $10 a year.
On Monday afternoons at the Jackson Red Line stop, Scroggins joins forces with Larry, a blues guitarist. The two riff together, and Scroggins often sings harmony for Larry. But since Larry provides the microphones and background music, he gets to decide how to split their earnings. Scroggins said he doesn’t mind the setup.
“I’ve haven’t had this much fun in a long time,” Scroggins said of singing with Larry. “It’s all about having a good time and never forgetting where you came from.”
With his sparse, swirling white hair and finely wrinkled face, Scroggins show his age. But his deep brown eyes have an optimism that obscures his hardships.
Scroggins said that one day he hopes someone will say of him, “I remember when that guy was singing on the corner — now look at him. Never forget your dream.”