The Rugged Streets of Uptown!
Imagine if you'd been homeless since 1974?
Just try to imagine that....
I was born in 1972, so trying to wrap my head around John's reality is virtually impossible! This man was born in Wisconsin, moved to Uptown with his family as a very young fella, was raised in Uptown and then lived as a homeless teenager and man in Uptown until this year: 2014.
He's seen and been through it all. He's seen and lived through all the changes to the neighborhood! Uptown is his home, Uptown is his family, Uptown is his support network, Uptown is where his Church is, Uptown is where his faith is challenged, Uptown is his community; Uptown embraces him and we are his people!
John's "streetname" is Chief and I consider him as the "Chief Survivor" of Uptown; he's been the victim of many vicious and unprovoked attacks, simply because he was homeless and sleeping in an alley. He's also been attacked because he's Native American, because he's been intoxicated, and yet, despite all odds, he has continued to survive!
I could dwell on many of John's obstacles, which include the devastating reality of being completely illiterate and his ongoing battle with the bottle, but today I want to focus on some of the most horrific tales he tells, because his stories highlight how people experiencing homelessness are far more likely to be victims of violence than the perpetrators of violence. Due to the nature and frequency of these attacks, and how people have callously chosen to "pick-on", bully and even murder weak and fragile people experiencing homelessness, I wholeheartedly believe that such crimes should be classified as "hate crimes".
Men and women who "look homeless", sleep outside or "ride the trains" are often harassed and assaulted simply because of who they are perceived to be; it's as simple and as horrible as that! I know plenty of people who've been cussed at, spit upon and kicked as they sit or lie on the sidewalk. When people sleep on the trains, they tell tales of sleeping with "one eye open", because they're often robbed, beaten and called nasty names. Many also recall times when the police and government officials have abused their power by arresting them, striking them, throwing their stuff away and even tossing their IDs down drains!
One of my coworkers, (who was previously homeless), recalls a night when he couldn't get into a shelter and was left sleeping on a park bench. What I'm about to mention, I do so to prove a very important point, not to differentiate between those "deserving" and "undeserving": no one, I repeat no one, should be mistreated or abused simply because they're homeless, the color of their skin, their sexual preference or any other reason. My coworker, my friend, does not use drugs or alcohol, does not have a mental illness, a disability or a felony, he has a college degree and had a very high paying job in the financial industry; he became homeless because of the economic crash and his unwillingness to be involved in the company's "unethical ways". As a lady was walking past him and saw him lying there, she made sure her dog went nowhere near to him; she didn't do this out of respect for him, because she made a very degrading comment about him and how she didn't want her dog to be contaminated by "that disgusting homeless person"! My friend sadly recalls how too often people would respect their pets more than him as a human being. My friend sadly recounts how that homeless experience made him feel less than human and lower than a dog!
Here's just a little glimpse into how cruel some people can be: Papa G's blankets were set on fire as he slept behind Aldi's, some local government officials waited until Jay disappeared to use a restroom so they could callously toss away all his and his friends belongings from under a local viaduct, Brian was savagely beaten on the "red line" by some youngsters because he awoke to find them trying to "pick his pocket", Dave was thrown into a freezing Lake Michigan by a group of college students who thought it would be funny to pick on a homeless veteran, the police decided to drop off "drunken Jim" into a pile of snow by Montrose Harbor rather than take him to the hospital and I know of 2 men who were fatally shot in their heads as they peacefully slept on park benches in Uptown.
All these attacks were unprovoked and cowardly; what's worse is the offenders were never found or prosecuted. Just to add a little more drama and provoke some anger to the extreme inequality that rocks this nation and Uptown; as these callous perpetrators roam free, people experiencing homelessness are constantly rotating in and out of jail for various non-violent offenses. Is it right that these cold-hearted murderers and bullies walk around freely, while homeless folk are being sent to jail for sleeping under a viaduct, peeing in an alley, drinking alcohol in public, smoking a blunt, selling cigarettes on the corner or jumping a turnstile?
Chief's stories are no different, he has often been the victim of random, unjustified and unprovoked bullying and hate crimes! He has also been cast into jail on a few occasions, simply because he committed non-violent misdemeanors in his poverty and homelessness.
In the 1980's, Chief was sleeping in an Uptown alleyway when someone approached him with a large knife. For no apparent reason, this person deeply sliced him from his chest into his stomach, trying to murder him. Chief lay there bleeding, with no one to help! Somehow he managed to hold his stomach together and not allow his guts to spill out into the street. Somehow he managed to stumble over half a mile to Weiss Hospital, leaving a trail of blood. Somehow he passed a lot of folk, but no one helped or called an ambulance for him, they just stared at this bloody mess of a man. Somehow he survived!
Chief showed me this horrendous scar, and I don't know how he survived, but miraculously he has! John showed me plenty of wounds that tattoo his body from accidents, knives, bats, fists and even guns. Many of these scars have come from unprovoked and unjustified attacks, and miraculously, he has survived! When he speaks of his own obstacles and horror stories, I marvel at the guy I sit with, for he is a modern day miracle. When I soak in John's narrative, I realize that his survival is a living testimony of God's grace and a community of Kingdom people who are willing to love him, knowing how little he can give in return!
John is now housed. It's not in Uptown, but a little north in Rogers Park. He would have loved to have remained here, but subsidized housing has sadly become scarce in Uptown. But, Chief's happy to live in the safety and security of his own crib! He's happy to dodge the frigid winters and callous bullies who like to attack innocent homeless folk. He's happy to have conquered 40 years of homelessness, to now successfully move into his own apartment.
As much as I've written this to provoke anger and raise awareness against the callous thugs who've committed horrendous "hate crimes" against people experiencing homelessness, I've also written this to provoke hope and raise awareness about how much love and compassion flows through Uptown and it's homeless community.
John's successful move came about because of one essential reason; a whole group of people who rallied together for him, making sure it happened. We, at Cornerstone shelter, played a role, but there are so many more: How about Father Powell and the good people at St Augustine's? How about Brian and his colleagues at Heartland Alliance? How about John's homeless friends and his family? And how about all the people I'm not mentioning? We all made sure he wasn't ignored or forgotten. We all were patient and persevered. We all nagged and advocated for him. We all prayed and put legs to our prayers! We all didn't let his dream die and sprung into action when it was time to move!
..... and we all saw John get those keys and move into his own crib
..... and we all celebrated with John, Uptown's Chief Survivor!
..... and we all celebrated with John, Uptown's Chief Survivor!