Photo: Megan Cottrell

Hundreds of people waited to apply for low-income housing this week at Sheridan and Foster Aves.

Marie Chalmers never thought she'd be on this side of the line.

A former social worker, she used to help people who had fallen on hard times. But since she lost her job two years ago, she found herself waiting with over 400 other people Wednesday, standing in a three-hour-long line at the corner of Sheridan and Foster in Uptown to apply to be on a waiting list for low-income one bedroom apartments.

As she waited, she talked to folks around her, and their stories brought her to tears.

“Why do you think I'm wearing these sunglasses?” she asked me, pointing to the large black frames that hid her eyes.

After hours in line, she had a blank form—an application for the waiting list for Estes Paulina apartments in Rogers Park. If she filled out the form and faxed it in, she might be contacted within the next year to see if she qualified for a unit.

“I've found that you have to go through some pain in Illinois if you need help,” Chalmers said. “People become animals because of the system.”

Behind her were mothers with children draped over their shoulders, exhausted from hours of waiting, and people with disabilities who said they barely were able to stand for so long. The crowd was frustrated and short-tempered. Some had clearly camped out overnight, despite signs that anyone waiting before 10:30 a.m., when the line opened, would be turned away. One woman who arrived early was overheard saying, "When they open that door, it's gonna be like the Hunger Games."

Can you imagine people waiting in a line that stretched around the block for any other government service? The DMV? The City Clerk? The Secretary of State?

But inconvenience is pretty standard when it comes to services for the poor, says Dan Lesser, of the Sargent Shriver Center on Poverty Law.

“There's a world of different between how the average person is treated at the DMV and how someone whose applying for assistance is treated at the local public aid office,” said Lesser.

“We heard that a lot when the economy went bad and a lot of people applied for food stamps for the first time,” he said. “They were definitely not used to get the kind of treatment that they got when they went to those local offices.”

It makes you wonder: Is there simply a belief that poor people have nowhere better to be? Why do the providers of essential services treat them as if their time is worthless?

Most of the problem lies with the abysmal funding levels for human services, says Lesser. But the majority of people who are on some kind of public assistance are working, he says, and the layers of red tape hurts them financially.

“If they have to show up to an office and wait around all day, it means taking a day off work,” said Lesser.

Not only does that mean missing out on a day's pay, but for folks who work at a minimum wage job in a service industry, it puts their very job in jeopardy.

So, whatever happened to “the city that works”?