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Mark Brown: Polar vortex helps man see the light

Henry Williams he allowed himself continue his drug use before being rescued January 2014 by SalvatiArmy Chicago Friday morning 4-18-14.

Henry Williams he allowed himself to continue his drug use before being rescued in January 2014 by the Salvation Army in Chicago Friday morning 4-18-14. | Kevin Tanaka/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 21, 2014 6:39AM



Henry Williams can tell you the exact moment of his rebirth.

It was Jan. 5, the first night of the polar vortex that plunged Chicago into a lethal deep freeze.

Williams was asleep in his usual spot outside the delivery door of a CVS pharmacy near the Ogilvie Transportation Center, the buzz of the heroin he had snorted telling his brain he was toasty and warm when the reality was he was likely freezing to death.

All he had covering him were two thin sheets. He wore no gloves. When two Salvation Army workers tried to wake him, they got no response and called 911, believing he was dead.

The paramedics who arrived were not quite as gentle with junkies as the social workers and successfully roused Williams, who only remembers them saying:

“Sir, we have some people here who are willing to take you to a warm place.”

“And I can remember me extending my hand and saying, ‘Yes, sir. Yes, sir.”

Extending that hand wasn’t part of the plan the 54-year-old Williams had vaguely made for himself during eight years of living homeless on Chicago streets. In that plan, Williams would live outdoors apart from society, do his drugs and die in the process.

But in that moment, Williams reached for something more — more from life, more from himself, more from the society he had chosen to shun and that shunned him.

I met Williams on Friday at the Salvation Army facility at Monroe and Ashland, which he has called home these past few months and where he will spend this Easter.

Except for a telltale mouth of missing and tangled teeth, it was difficult to imagine I was speaking with the same fellow who Capt. Nancy Powers of the Salvation Army describes bringing here that frigid night not quite four months ago.

At the time, Williams was a fright by his own admission, with a “haystack” of unkempt hair atop his head and a “Rip Van Winkle beard.” He needed help to walk, and by the next morning when the drug withdrawal kicked in, he became so ill he had to be taken to the hospital, where the doctors would later tell him they thought he was gone.

On Friday, Williams looked strong, fit and well-groomed. Although emphasizing the addict’s mantra of taking life a day at a time, he also spoke of finishing his GED, finding a job and maybe going to college.

Williams allowed this is probably the longest stretch he has been clean and sober since his addict father began injecting him with heroin when he was 11 years old for reasons Williams has quit trying to fathom so he can concentrate on forgiving him.

I can’t tell you everything that’s happened to Williams in the years in between. There were jobs, stints in jail, treatment programs. But he says this is the first time he ever told himself: “Whatever I have to do, I have to do. I’m not going back out in the streets.”

For many years, Williams said, he would wake up in a daze on the sidewalks as Chicagoans bustled to work and think to himself: “Life is passing you by.”

Now, he’s thinking there might still be an opportunity for him to make a contribution, “to do what normal people do,” as he puts it.

Williams sees the elements of a miracle in his story, the hand of divine intervention leading the Salvation Army workers to find him.

Powers said it was a wrong turn that brought her and a co-worker to the spot Williams was sleeping that night as they scoured Lower Wacker Drive for homeless in need of shelter.

It was Williams’ shopping cart stacked with his stuff that caught their eye. Williams said he normally kept the cart hidden at night so nothing would be stolen while he slept. But that night he left it out.

Later, as he clung to life at the hospital, Williams found himself trapped in a highlight reel with his life flashing in front of him — “the things I did wrong, the things I did right, faster and faster, until the light popped through.”

At the end of the light were the doctors. They asked him what happened. He said he didn’t know.

Williams said he believes God intervened that January night, “not just to restore me but to get me to help other people.”

He told a story of riding the CTA to visit a doctor recently and running across one of his homeless acquaintances from the street.

“What you done?” the man demanded to know.

“I said I gave up,” Williams said.

He heard later the man had checked into rehab.

Henry Williams thinks he’s found his purpose.



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