Chief Survivor

Bumped into "Chief" the other day. This Native American man has been homeless in Uptown for 37 years! Yes, 37 years! That's since he was just a mere 13 year old boy; it all began just after his mother died and he had no place to go, except to the rugged streets of Uptown.

One of my earliest memories of Chief happened about 12 years ago, he came into our facility to eat a hot meal at our "dinner guest" program. It was deathly cold and he was wearing a relatively new overly-sized green trench-coat, so he begged me for something that fitted him; I found him a very nice brand new "Blackhawks" jacket. He was elated. Even though I repeatedly declined, Chief adamantly insisted I keep this trench-coat for myself, it was far too big and long for him. He won the argument and I still wear it every winter; it's one piece of clothing many people frequently covet. If he had worn it, that coat would now be in absolute tatters from the bottom dragging in our city's slushy snow. He still owns that Blackhawks jacket. It sits in storage at his sister's, waiting for the cold weather to surface again.

This particular day, Chief was just sitting in an alley. I hadn't seen him for quite a while, he's someone who doesn't live in shelters or even come around seeking services. He's a loner. He doesn't want to bother others. He just likes to plod along doing his "thing" and hang with a couple of his buddies. After 37 years, he's become a man who has lost hope in the system, and cannot imagine any possibility of housing. All this makes him a very difficult guy to find. We see each other across Arygle Street, so I start wandering toward him and he yells out the nickname he gave me many years ago: "Custer Jr!" I yell out my response: "Chief", followed by a man-hug.

In this brief encounter, I remembered that Chief's real name was on a list of people who are chronically homeless. Outreach workers had been trying to find him, but their efforts proved fruitless. Suddenly, I had him there. What an opportunity! I whip out my cell-phone and call up Brian, one of the local outreach workers, and we set up an appointment.

Later that day, the three of us meet in a local diner and discuss his life. That's where I discover the length of his homeless stint. I knew he didn't use drugs, but struggled with alcohol. I knew there had been times when I'd seen him with bandages wrapped around his head, had broken bones and other bumps and bruises, but I didn't know about *all* the brutality he'd suffered from his fellow human beings. He shares and shows his body full of scars; bullet holes, a caved in portion on the side of his head and knife wounds everywhere. He tells of fights, police abuse and power-tripping prison guards. He tells of drunken foolishness, where he wound up with, yet another, scar. He tells of many of the inhabitable spots he's laid his weary head at night, in both extreme cold and heat. Together, we all reflect on so many of his homeless buddies who we know and love. Too many of them prematurely passed away because of Chicago horrid winters and humid summers, diseases and the murderous actions of our fellow human beings.

All these stories qualify Chief for this particular housing program, but all of a sudden, he tells us a story that rocks our world: He was sleeping alone in an alley, just off Leland and west of Broadway, and some unknown guy just walks up to him with a massive curved knife and digs this weapon deeply into his lower stomach and slices Chief all the way up into the middle of his chest. Blood everywhere. He was a victim of a brutal hate crime. He screams out, but no-one comes to help. An ambulance never came. Somehow, and in someway, he rises to his feet and starts stumbling down Leland toward the Weiss Hospital Emergency Room (1/2 mile), holding in and trying to prevent his internal organs from spilling out. Sadly, depressingly and callously, he passed quite a few people and no one (yes; absolutely no-one) stopped to help this poor dying man. Somehow, and in someway, Chief miraculously made it to that ER, where his stomach was stitched, stapled and woven back together. He survived. Somehow!?

Man; what a survivor! I sit there dumbfounded. Brian also has a shocked look on his face. The story reeks of human ugliness and a morbid lack of compassion from so many sides. His attacker was never located, let alone properly investigated. As I have often pointed out so many times; homeless people are far more likely to be the victims of violence, than offenders, and Chief has had a hefty portion of pointless brutality aimed in his direction.

Yes! Chief is a survivor and he'll sporadically keep wandering over to Cornerstone and Jesus People seeking the occasional plate of food and a prayer. Chief is a survivor who knows how keep on surviving, even when so many forces rally against this man. Chief is a survivor who'll keep on loving and supporting his homeless comrades, despite all the hate and rage aimed at him. Chief is a survivor who is amazingly still full of love. Chief is a survivor who now has a flicker that is growing into a flame, producing renewed hope that one day, very soon, he'll have his own place, his own bathroom, his own stove and his own closet to hang his Blackhawks jacket. Chief is a survivor who has survived 37 long years of cold hard concrete, closed doors and lost opportunities, yet he now has a door creeping open, creating new opportunities and some warm soft carpet. Chief is a survivor who now has hope in his continued survival.

Pray, my people, pray, that this dream will soon become his reality, and he'll not spend "year 38" barely surviving under Uptown's hazy stars, but he'll spend "year one" surviving in his own crib, choosing to shower when he wants to shower.

Chief; I love you my brother, keep fighting, keep loving and keep the faith.
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