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She came in from the cold — and died peacefully

Updated: November 16, 2011 11:09AM

It’s been four years since I introduced you to the woman who came in from the cold.

I wouldn’t expect you to remember.

She was one of the homeless people who live in Marquette Park. I guess you could say hard-core homeless. She’d lived in the park for at least the 15 years that Sister Therese DelGenio had been ministering to the neighborhood’s castaways at that point.

I wrote about the woman for Thanksgiving 2007 because she had become one of the success stories of Sister Therese’s Southwest Chicago PADS shelter.

The woman who came in from the cold had done just that — cleaning up her act so that with PADS help she was able to get her own apartment and leave those cold wintry nights outdoors behind. She’d even adopted a stray dog from an animal shelter, a giant step up in responsibility for someone who’d always struggled just to take care of herself.

PADS held a memorial service this past week for the woman who came in from the cold. Lotus Melodie Jones died last month at 61. Melodie, as everyone knew her, led a sad life. But I don’t intend for this to be just another sad story.

After coming off the streets, Melodie was never homeless again. Instead of dying cold and alone in the park as had so many of her cohorts, she met her end in the relative warmth and comfort of a hospital’s hospice care. In between, she enjoyed a few good, happy years with the dog, Peaches, who she came to love.

Those who work with the homeless must take their victories where they can, and Melodie’s brief respite from homelessness at the end of her life was cause for celebration.

That’s not to suggest a celebratory mood at the memorial service, which I attended to pay my respects not only to Melodie, but also to PADS staff and volunteers.

These PADS memorial services, of which I have attended several, are a little like going to a funeral in your own family. You run into people and lament that you haven’t seen them since the last funeral, and then you don’t see them again until the next funeral.

I ran into several other former PADS “guests,” probably even bigger success stories than Melodie, who used the help they got there to pull their lives back together.

Last time I was there was for a memorial for Cynthia Barnes, the homeless prostitute whose murder this summer became the topic of several of my columns.

While I never knew Cynthia, Melodie was among the first group of Marquette Park homeless I met when I started doing columns about Sister Therese and the shelter in 2000, not that we had much contact.

As several people made note in their eulogies, Melodie was not the warm and fuzzy type. She kept people at a distance, intentionally so. She barely talked.

“I think that was her defense when she was homeless — to keep people from exploiting her. She had to have an attitude,” said her friend, Don Kesler, a neighborhood guy who looked out for her in the park for many years.

If you got to know her, though, Melodie had a good heart, said Rosie Ricks, the PADS caseworker who became one of the few who did.

Melodie was born in Florida and moved to Chicago with her family as a young girl, Ricks said. Her father died at a young age, circumstances unknown. Her mom worked as a waitress to support her and her brother, then died of cancer when Melodie was 16. The brother died six months later, leaving Melodie alone in the world.

By my math, that leaves about 20 years unaccounted for before we know she started hanging out in Marquette Park.

I can tell you she was an alcoholic and often slept under the bridge over the lagoon. She was there the night in 2001 when her friend Laurie Dawson died alongside her from complications of alcoholism.

While talking to folks at Melodie’s memorial, I realized many of the long-term homeless I met in the park a decade ago have died: Melodie, Laurie and their friends “Cowboy” John McLarnen and Dale Cardelli. The one I’ve lost track of is Laurie’s sister, Sue, though last I heard she had moved in with family and was doing well, so I’ll hope that’s still the case.

Homeless people still sleep in Marquette Park, the only difference now is they’re more likely to be young African-American men.

It’s a slow, painful death out there, as one formerly homeless woman said at the service. Mother Nature will suck the life out of you.

PADS helped save Melodie Jones from that.

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