Mike is 40 years old. He has a gentle, intelligent face; strong, capable hands; he speaks very softly. He usually wont look you straight in the eye. He looks just a little away when he talks to you.
Mikes been living in Hyde Park for six years. Hes spent lots of nights in the gazebo on 55th Street; now and again hes put up at a shelter downtown. In winter the gazebo must be freezing, and then even the shelters no shelter: people fight there, get drunk, steal, beat you up. You have to pay to get there, and you have to pay to get in. And youre out on the street again the next morning.
Mikes one of Hyde Parks homeless. He grew up on the South Side, in Jackson Park. He was an only child. His father died in 90; his mother passed away in a nursing home three months ago. When he mentions his father, his voice sometimes catches. Even after he became homeless he was still in touch with his mother on and off.
All in all, it seems that Mike loved his parents; that things were all right for him growing up, that the reason hes homeless is anything but clear, and that the fact hes homeless has been anything but inevitable.
And, from what Mike says, it seems like things really were all right, at least for a while. But then things changed. Hed been living in Hyde Park, working in sales and customer service for Market U.S.A. when, in 93, he contracted H.I.V. In November of that year, he left Hyde Park, moving into subsidized housing in Oak Park. He worked for another eight years, struggling to pay the medical bills and to keep working despite how sick he was. In 2001 he got laid off for missing too many hours of work. Since then, hes been on the street.
At a talk last week at the U of C sponsored by the organization The Giving Tree, Sammy, a spokesperson for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, mentioned that 30 percent of Chicagos homeless have a drug addiction. This leaves 70 percent. Some of these might be women whove run away (with or without their children) from abusive domestic relationships; some might be men and women with severe psychological problemspost-traumatic stress disorder, psychosis or schizophrenia.
Mike has no drug addiction; he contracted H.I.V. by sex, not a needle. Hes neither psychotic nor schizophrenic. In a word, he was never destined to become homelessnot any more than anybody elsebut hes homeless. He got sick; he got laid off; he couldnt pay the bills. It can happen to anyone.
Eight months ago Mike found out he has diabetes. For the past six weeks, hes been trying to get a place for himself in a transitional living center, Hull House, in Evanston. This would be a big step. But the application process has been tough. Hes had to supply detailed medical records on demandand every trip to the Cook County Hospital costs him. Most of the time now, he cant pay for his medication, and so hes sick. Finding a place to go to the bathroom when youre living on the street is bad enough; finding a place to throw up is even worse.
When Mike sees you on the street and says, Can you help me out, or asks you for some moneyto get the medication, hell often sayhe means it. Hell be straight with you; hes had to be more straight with himself than most of us have. If things have been bad with him, youll see it in his face, and hell tell it. Hes not trying to get money to feed a drug habit; hes trying to get money to get to Evanston, to get another chance. No one doesnt deserve another chance, especially if theyre brave enough to really want it. For Mike and those homeless in Hyde Park who want it, we ought to keep our eyes, ears, and hearts open. It can happen to anyone.