Homeless ‘preacher’ seeks to inspire
By Frank Vaisvilas Correspondent September 22, 2013 10:49PM
Steve Sherwood, the homeless minister, stands outside Just Toni's on Jefferson Street under a sign that recognizes him. | Frank Vaisvilas~For Sun-Times Media
By the numbers
633,782 homeless people in the U.S. as of January, 2012
1.4 percent increase in homeless families in the U.S. from 2011 to 2012
5.7 overall decrease in the number of homeless people in the U.S. from 2007 to 2012
Source: U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
Updated: October 24, 2013 6:02AM
JOLIET — Steve Sherwood, known around town as the homeless minister, isn’t hard to find with his long beard, camouflage clothing and decorative, carnival-like carts that he pushes along high traffic areas such as Jefferson Street.
Well known to residents, business owners and other homeless people, Sherwood, 51, tries to provide hope and inspiration to those willing to listen to him preach about God.
But he said it’s becoming more difficult to find his “congregation” because of what he views as increased police harassment of homeless people.
“I’ve had to duck and cover,” Sherwood said.
Police Chief Brian Benton acknowledged in an interview that police in recent weeks have been enforcing loitering and vagrancy laws and clearing homeless people from the area around the Will County Courthouse at the request of courthouse officials. Benton said police also have focused on sites along the Joliet Junction Trail recreational path where homeless people tend to sleep.
But he stopped short of saying there has been a crackdown on the homeless.
“There’s not an increased initiative or funding,” Benton said. “We’re just called by businesses from time to time.”
One place where Sherwood is welcome is Just Toni’s, a restaurant owned by Toni Portillo, the niece of Portillo’s restaurant chain founder Dick Portillo.
“I like when he hangs out in the lot,” Toni Portillo said. “I love the work he does so much. ... He’s a Christian, and I love that.”
She said she gives the restaurant’s leftover chicken to Sherwood, who might not need the food for himself but knows many who do.
Portillo said some customers are curious about Sherwood at first, but she explains to them the work he does and how he is well-known in Joliet.
She said she feels Sherwood had sold everything he had so he could do God’s work in the streets.
Sherwood said that’s partly true. He said even if he could get a minimum-wage job, the government would likely take more than half of his earnings because of some tax penalties imposed on him from a previous marriage.
“Who can support themselves on $4 an hour?” he said.
He believes he was meant to preach, especially to other homeless people.
Sherwood estimates that there are about 600 people in the Joliet area who are in various stages of homelessness. He said some try to hide it by living in their cars and washing up in restaurants. And some are near homelessness, such as families facing eviction.
Marilyn Farmer, director of the Morningstar Mission homeless shelter in Joliet, said it serves about 150 people a night, and she has been seeing an increase in families since the economy collapsed in 2008.
She said Morningstar has a drop-in center where homeless people can come for the day and be safe.
“They have the opportunity to keep off the street,” Farmer said.