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Many homeless men and women prefer to take their chances with cold: Brown

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Updated: February 8, 2014 6:29AM

Ulysses White came in from the cold Monday.

After 21/2 years sleeping on the city’s streets, much of it below the Michigan Avenue bridge, the 55-year-old lifelong Chicagoan was convinced by the record cold temperatures and two friendly Salvation Army workers that it was time.

Even in Monday’s dangerous weather conditions, this made White a rarity.

Most of the hard-core homeless politely declined offers of temporary shelter, preferring to continue to go it alone on Lower Wacker beneath their piles of blankets.

It’s something Christine Henry and Richard Vargas still struggle to explain after years of doing this outreach work for the Salvation Army: why so many men and women refuse to seek refuge even to escape life-threatening cold.

“I think they just want to be independent, and they don’t want to be in a shelter,” Vargas said as we explored the Lower Wacker labyrinth in a Salvation Army van.

I’d driven this route with them previously, but never with the stakes so high. Temperatures don’t need to reach 16 below for someone to freeze to death, but the risks are obviously greater.

With that in mind, Vargas pulled the van to the curb to check out each lump on the sidewalk. If they got no response from honking or calling to the individual — by name if they happened to know it from prior visits — they left the van and approached on foot.

They didn’t leave until they received some indication that the person buried underneath was OK.

In this manner, we came upon Eddie Bakion, known on the streets as Red Fox, sleeping on a roadway median near another homeless fellow known only by his nickname, Africa. Bakion said Africa is from Ethiopia.

I introduced you to Bakion back in August. He’s 65 and has been homeless for years. He said at the time he was ready to leave the street life behind but first needed to straighten out a problem with his ID card. He still hasn’t done so.

Bakion reluctantly surfaced from beneath his blankets and said he wanted to stay put. He said he was warm enough inside a sleeping bag with another sleeping bag on top. I’d guess he had at least another five or six blankets piled on top of that.

Henry asked Bakion if he’d seen Africa, whose bedroll had exhibited no signs of life. Bakion said he hadn’t.

Vargas went over for a closer inspection without actually shaking him. It’s never advisable to lay hands on a sleeping homeless person, because some of them keep a knife clutched close to their chest and can awaken by swinging it first and asking questions later. Bakion once told me he slashed somebody in just that fashion.

Vargas withdrew from Africa’s side of the median and pronounced him absent, but then I pointed out the steam rising from where I assumed his head was. About that time Africa shifted ever so slightly.

It was then that somebody noticed a frozen, lifeless pigeon on the sidewalk near the men, and we agreed it must be dead.

“No, he’s alive,” Bakion said. “He comes and goes.”

Sure enough, the pigeon stirred, too.

We continued on this way and were waved off by Gary, Ron and other anonymous men and women peering out from their nests before we finally came upon White.

Actually, he found us. We were pulling away from the corner of Lower Wacker and Michigan when he called out.

Henry asked if he wanted to get into a shelter. White hesitated, but didn’t need much persuading. Henry immediately arranged by phone to take him to the city’s warming center at 10 S. Kedzie where they would find a shelter that could take him.

But once White got inside the van, Vargas pushed him a little further, asking White if he had a substance abuse problem.

Heroin, White admitted.

“What if we could get you in detox today?” Vargas pressed.

“That would be great. I’ve got to get off this stuff,” White said.

And just like that, after stopping off at the Salvation Army’s Harbor Light Center for a hot meal of beans and rice and chicken fried steak from Chef David Green, White was on his way to the Haymarket Center’s detox unit. If all goes well, White will return to the Salvation Army after he leaves Haymarket in a few days to enter a drug treatment program.

During lunch, White told me he had a brother who froze to death last February while drinking in an abandoned building.

This record cold will undoubtedly claim some lives. In White’s case, maybe it helped save one.


Twitter: @MarkBrownCST

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