The sound of thunder explodes in the night, drowning out the pitter-patter of cold rain, falling on city streets.
A line of men, all waiting on the sidewalk in front of Walls Memorial Christian Methodist Episcopal Church on the city’s West Side, chat while trying to keep warm.
It’s Thursday, and they have been waiting for about an hour for the church’s doors to open at 7 p.m. Most look weary, standing in the cold damp air that chills to the bone.
Inside this church, at 200 S. Sacramento St., they hope to find shelter from the cruel night, a warm meal, a bed, a shower and tonight even medical care. There is only one catch: The first 65 men will get in. After that, the restwill wait around for transport to another shelter, which means that their meal and bed are going to be delayed for another couple of hours, until they get to a shelter that isn’t at capacity.
“The biggest misconception, that they’re all lazy,” said Heather Duncan, 44, a nurse practitioner that visits Walls every Monday and Thursday night.
On this night, she and her mobile team have set up a makeshift clinic in the gymnasium behind some movable screens, using folding chairs and three folding tables. Her medical bag, full of her equipment and medicine, are on the table nearest to her. Next to the bag is a scattering of paperwork, all pertaining to the 65 men in the shelter that night.
She works with an organization called Circle Family Healthcare Network that provides primary health care to the homeless in Chicago. According to Duncan, the Mobile Health Units are comprised of four people, each specializing in a specific are. There is a social worker, mental health therapist, Medical Doctor and Nurse Practitioner.
While Duncan has only been with Circle for about three years, she has been involved in providing primary care to the homeless for 20 years, she said.
“I think if you polled the guys in here, most of them are working during the day,” said Duncan. “They’re working under the table, they’re working side jobs, they’re working construction. I think that’s the biggest misconception that they don’t want to work.”
Duncan started providing healthcare for the homeless in 1989. In 1980, while still a nursing student, she had begun to work in some clinics. After her experiences there, she said she knew that she wanted to focus on working with patients that didn’t have access to healthcare.
“It took me a while to find out what that meant,” explained Duncan. “I worked as a nurse in a hospital for a year and then found the job, healthcare for the homeless. It was just the perfect match.”
At one time, providing healthcare for the homeless was Duncan’s full-time job. Now, her full-time job is teaching nursing students at North Park University.
“But even though it’s not my full time job anymore, I can’t not do it,” said Duncan. “It’s a great job and it’s really, people deserve to be respected and people deserve to have quality care no matter what they’ve done. And this really is an opportunity make that happen.”
The Good, Bad and Ugly
Having worked for 20 years as a nurse to the homeless, Duncan has her share of stories. One of her favorites involved a homeless man, a rock of cocaine, and an ear.
“I was with another nurse practitioner. She’s a very calm person and she walks over and says, you’ve got to come over here,” said Duncan. The other nurse knew that one of Duncan’s favorite things to do, as a nurse, is to take things out of people’s ears.
“Well, I go in and there’s this guy that I’m looking at his ear and there’s this white rock,” said Duncan. “And I ask him what is this and he tells me it’s caine rock.”
What she discovered was that the patient was involved in a drug bust a month before and in order to hide it from the police had stuffed the crack rock into his ear. That way he couldn’t get arrested. Except the drugs had become stuck in the patient’s ear.
“…We finally got a big syringe full of water and we wash the thing out into the basin,” Duncan said.
Later, she found out that the man from whose ear she had extracted the crack had sold the wax-laden crack rock to another homeless man for five bucks.
“We were like, ‘but it has ear wax on it,’ and the guy said, ‘yeah, well, that will cook off,’” Duncan recalled.
All in a night’s work
Some of the patients that Duncan and her team see have been homeless for years. But recently, she has seen newer, younger, faces like Daniel Solk Jr., who, wearing a black hoodie, blue sweat pants, and blue flip-flops, had come to Willis looking for shelter this night.
Soon it is time for Solak and the other men at the shelter to say a prayer before the food is served.
“The reason why I’m here is because I lost my job when I got hurt and they downsized,” said Solak, one of the younger homeless men at the shelter.
Solak, 37, says he used to work at a firm called Metro KBR, a bike messenger company. His job as a bike messenger in Chicago was cut short when he was hit by a taxicab on Michigan Avenue on April 22, 2007, he said, adding that the impact caused him to flip into the air and come crashing down into a pole. The accident fractured his right elbow, right fore arm, and broke two of the ribs on his right side, he says. Then, while he was in traction, his bike was stolen.
“Everything was gone, you know, except the frame,” said Solak. “It’s been downhill since. And living in a shelter with a bunch of men, it’s kind of difficult.”
When Solak was first was looking for a shelter, he went to a shelter by the name of REST, at 941 W. Lawrence Ave. It was there, after talking to a man that had been homeless for a longer period time, that he heard of Walls.
“He told me this one was the best one,” said Solak. “So far it has been the best one because there are no fights like at other shelters. They argue once in a great while, it’s not like anything big.”
Solak says he has been having problems with his heart. Since coming to Walls, he says, he has been receiving treatment and medication. While grateful for that treatment, Solak says that other than those two nights that Duncan and her Circle unit come to Walls, it’s next to impossible for him to get medical treatment.
“We have social worker who isn’t here tonight,” said Duncan. “Over there is our mental health therapist and she’s kind of filling in and so people come and they sign up.”
On this Thursday, patients at Walls sign up. Dr. Hugget and Duncan see whoever is at the top of the pile, taking the sickest men first.
As the night progresses, Duncan and her team finally pack up to leave. The men they treated are now moving tables, the same tables where a short while ago, they sat eating, reading, chatting.
Soon the floor of the small church gym will be filled with 65 men, among them Solak, who on this night have secured a warm place to sleep—or at least try—before it is time again to return to the streets and the cold.
View Larger Map