Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: Before death and rousting from viaduct, homeless man had simple request, ‘Why don’t you leave us alone?’

Jack King homeless man who lived under WilsAvenue viaduct died March 13 2013. | Phoby Odette Youself~WBEZ

Jack King, a homeless man who lived under the Wilson Avenue viaduct died March 13, 2013. | Photo by Odette Youself~WBEZ

By Mark Brown, Columnist

Jack King, a homeless man who lived under a Lake Shore Drive viaduct until his death March 13, reached out to me last week as if a voice from the grave.

Except King’s mellow voice, with its hint of a southern drawl, wasn’t coming from the hereafter but rather from my desktop computer.

By amazing coincidence, WBEZ radio reporter Odette Yousef had interviewed King shortly before his death, seeking his views about the Salvation Army food truck.

King was a fan of the Salvation Army truck, which he relied upon daily for a midday meal, and as a result not too fond of the local alderman who tried to chase it out of the neighborhood.

“He don’t particularly care too much about us,” King could be heard telling Yousef, in reference to Ald. James Cappleman (46th). She asked why he would say that.

“Because he’s trying to kick people out of here and there,” King said. “You can only chase a person who has nowhere to go so far, you know. There’s gotta be something, you know.”

Six days after that, the 58-year-old King was found dead of a heart attack.

Yousef aired the interview in its entirety Tuesday after learning of King’s death in last Sunday’s column. In that column, I told the story of how city streets and sanitation workers and police had rousted the sidewalk encampment on Wilson Avenue where King and about a dozen other homeless people regularly slept.

Although King died two days before a garbage crew cleaned out the makeshift bedding and other belongings the homeless people had accumulated, some of King’s friends blamed his death on stress caused by mounting pressure from the city.

Never having met King during my own visits to the viaduct, I certainly didn’t expect to ever get a chance to hear his take on the matter.

But thanks to Yousef’s interview, anyone can hear the clear agitation in King’s voice when the subject turned to the city’s tactics with the Uptown homeless.

“They took my blankets, rugs I had laid out, y’know. Maybe they get brownie points for that. I don’t know,” he said, blaming police.

“Why don’t you leave us alone?” King continued. “We’re not bothering nobody. That’s the way I look at it. I’m not out here to bother or hurt nobody. I’m out here trying to survive, best I can, particularly trying to make it through the winter, because it’s cooold in Chicago.”

The way King drew out the word “cold” accentuated his southern drawl.

King was a native of far Downstate Herrin, Ill. When he was 12, his father died, and his mother brought the family to Chicago with “nothing but the clothes on our backs,” said his sister, Alice Hartman.

King graduated from Stewart Elementary School in Uptown before dropping out, she said. He spent most of his life knocking about the country, mainly in the south — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida — working as a tailor, at a racetrack, washing dishes, whatever odd jobs came along.

His wife, Debbie, traveled with him. She was struck and killed by a car in Florida last March, almost a year to the day before King’s death. He returned to Chicago and stayed with his sister a while before the pull of the street took hold again.

“He was my little brother. He always called me ‘my Mother Hen,’” Hartman, a waitress, told me Thursday, just hours after his burial. “I scraped together my savings, and I buried him today.”

She acknowledged King’s drinking problem and hinted at something darker in his past, “personal stuff” — probably the same unspoken thing King told Yousef made it difficult for him to qualify for housing. All I know is King had at least one felony conviction, for robbery, which can have that effect.

As I wrote previously, I’m sure King’s death had more to do with a lifetime of alcohol abuse and hard living on the street than anything else.

But as Cappleman has often scolded others about the dangers of stressing out psychologically vulnerable individuals — for instance, by suggesting that his efforts to close low-income SRO hotels in his ward would leave more people homeless — King’s friends’ point of view deserves mention.

The alderman denies any involvement in trying to chase off the homeless. He said his only efforts have been to help them find a safe place to live.

Jack King had almost survived another Chicago winter, living outdoors, under a bridge. The voice from the grave says all he wanted from the rest of us was to be left alone.