When fall comes, Jurgis returns to Chicago by stowing away on trains. He finds work digging tunnels, which are ostensibly to house telephone wiring, but actually serve as underground railways for freight transport. These subterranean railways connect the big factories to the rail depots, and are designed to undermine the power held by the teamsters' union.
Unbeknownst to Jurgis, the work he performs only serves to further solidify the industry's stranglehold on its workforce. Even when he thinks he is bucking the system, the system is so vast and powerful that it is in fact still using him to enrich itself.
Jurgis has more disposable income than he is accustomed to. Since the tunnel project is new, Jurgis is confident he'll be employed all winter, and he spends freely on alcohol. However, his arm gets broken on the job, and he spends a relatively pleasant Christmas recovering in the hospital.
Yet again, sudden misfortune, a product of the physical labor he is doing, intervenes to hinder Jurgis's progress, and his careless spending developed as a single man with no responsibility leaves him with little backup money.
After two weeks, Jurgis leaves the hospital, but his arm is still compromised. He has little money and, because of his injury, no earning potential. Unemployed and unemployable, Jurgis is forced to spend the winter on the streets without an overcoat. He spends his money hopping from saloon to saloon to take shelter. He comes upon a religious revival, and is indignant to hear the well-fed preacher evangelizing about sin and redemption of the soul, while Jurgis and his kind cannot even find bodily comfort.
The minute Jurgis is rendered useless to the factory system, he is cast out and left to fend for himself. He is desperate, but can find little sympathy or understanding from anyone who might be able to help him. His fury at the church sermon shows how little religious powers at the time actually focused on the poor—while they preached to the poor about avoiding sin the rich exploit the poor to no end. As a result, religion is another institution that Jurgis finds to be heartless and pointless to his life.
It is January 1904, and many men are out of work. This puts housing in high demand, and Jurgis ends up spending his last money on lodging to avoid a cold spell. He is forced to beg on the streets. However, as pathetic-looking as he is, he is unable to compete with "professional" beggars, who have mastered the art of appearing abject.
Competition makes it impossible for Jurgis to secure work and shelter, and worst of all, competition from cynical career beggars also eliminates Jurgis's chances of earning money through begging. This is the situation the owners want among workers, to make them so desperate they will accept whatever the owners deign to give them.