Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: After long absence, Salvation Army is back helping homeless people on Lower Wacker

By Mark Brown, Columnist

Christine Henry used to know the name of nearly every homeless person living on Lower Wacker Drive and where they slept.

That was several years ago, before her mobile outreach team and feeding truck from the Salvation Army was forced to abandon its work in the downtown area.

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View GalleryRichard A. Chapman, Sun-Times Photos

On Friday evening, Henry and her team set out to renew old acquaintances and make new ones.

“Isn’t that where Fire Man used to stay?” she asks Richard Vargas and Yvette Medina as we weave through the underground labyrinth of streets that branch off Lower Wacker, pointing to a dark passageway I had never previously noticed, then with surprise: “There he is.”

We turn down a gloomy service road and see a man with a small white blanket tied over his head and shoulders, but no coat.

Henry offers Fire Man some food and a blanket. He eagerly accepts. She tells Gil Portugues to retrieve two sack lunches and the blanket from the rear of the van but instructs him not to give Fire Man our other icebreaker, an oversize backpack with a built-in poncho.

“He’ll just burn it up,” she says, explaining that Fire Man got his nickname because of a bad habit of intentionally setting himself on fire with whatever is available.

Fire Man tells me his name is Vincent. He says he’s lived down here for 15 years. I don’t see any obvious burn scars, but it’s dark.

I suddenly notice it is warm and realize Vincent’s spot is beneath a giant exhaust fan for the skyscraper hidden above.

Henry tells Vincent she’ll be back next week with hot food and that the Salvation Army will be here regularly from now on. She tells him any time he is ready to come out, she will help. I ask Vincent if he remembers Henry from before. He says he doesn’t.

You may wonder why it has been so long since the Salvation Army has worked Lower Wacker — the city’s largest concentration of homeless people.

Well, a few years ago amid the Wacker Drive reconstruction project, a strange thing happened: The police started showing up and threatening the Salvation Army workers with arrest if they kept helping the homeless. After a while, they took the hint and moved on, without ever sorting out exactly who was behind the effort.

Then, a couple of months ago, a certain Uptown alderman tried to run the Salvation Army truck out of his neighborhood, too. This time they spoke up.

And one of the happy results of that rather unpleasant situation is that the Salvation Army learned it was not only entitled to stay in Uptown but that it was welcome to return to Lower Wacker Drive as well. It’s kinda neat how that worked out.

Yet, as we roamed this bleak below-street level world, I couldn’t help but wonder what might have been lost in the meantime if Henry and her team had been allowed to stick with the mission.

The Salvation Army outreach workers use the food and other presents as a way to establish relationships with the men and women who live on the street — the first step in building the trust required to get them off the street. Now they must rebuild the trust.

There are slightly fewer homeless on Lower Wacker than before the massive reconstruction project — owing mainly to new wrought-iron fencing that blocks off many of the places they previously camped.

But that has only given rise to new places, including a colony of maybe two dozen people living in a former parking lot below Wabash Avenue alongside the Seventeenth Church of Christ Scientist.

Many of the individuals staying at that location scatter as the Salvation Army van pulls in, a sign that we have probably interrupted illegal activity.

But others approach when they learn there is food, and nearly everyone swarms it when learn of the backpacks. Unfortunately, some will probably just sell them.

Henry, the Salvation Army’s director of homeless services, spots an old friend, Carmen, with whom she grew up with on 47th Street. They hug. Carmen is 51 and looks 15 years older. Henry tells me she has cancer.

“It’s in my stomach,” Carmen says, wolfing down the sandwich.

Henry tells Carmen that she may be able to get housing for her quickly.

“I’m ready,” Carmen says.

We continue like this for several hours, prodding lumps under blankets, stopping for shadows in crevices. Some remember Henry. Some don’t. Most are happy for the help and say thank you.

The Salvation Army is back where it belongs, and a city is better for it.