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From the Director: Prisoners of the mind

Wed, Jun 27, 2012

Jim LoBianco

This week’s cover story features the 100,000 Homes Campaign, its efforts to house the most vulnerable homeless, and how this project came too late for one Chicagoan, (see page 10). The person in question, “Bryan,” was a client at a number of social service agencies.

Bryan had an array of ailments, (i.e., physical, mental and behavioral), which put him high on the Vulnerability Index. Having known Bryan briefly through his visits to StreetWise caused me to reflect on his untimely death and the tragic fact that it occurred just when a housing unit became available.

Starting eight years ago I would regularly join homeless outreach teams on their visits to Lower Wacker. I got to know all the nooks and crannies of that roadway and many of the people who called it home. Unknown to most Chicagoans is a subterranean alley. This dead-end road is exactly what film makers look for when scouting for a location for a scene where the most desperate homeless spend their time.

Down this tunnel-like road I encountered a person known to the local outreach workers as the “chain man.” He was so named because he would wrap himself in discarded chains to prevent, as he believed, the demons from carrying him away. Another even more disturbing behavior of the “chain man” was that he would set fire to his clothes. Within a few days after having received a warm winter coat or new boots from the Salvation Army he would burn the items. Sometimes he even set fire to his clothes while he was still wearing them.

The chain man was the most desperate human being I have ever encountered. He was caked with dirt. More times than not one could only describe his verbal interactions as ravings. He seemed to be more a caricature than a person. But, he was a real person, imprisoned by the illness of his mind.

Unsurprisingly, the “chain man” eventually died on Lower Wacker. In the years I was aware of him he was in and out of psychiatric wards numerous times. But with funding as it was, he was only ever held a few days and released back to the streets. He never got the care necessary to actually stabilize his mental illness. His untreated mental illness killed him as much as the exposure of living on the streets. With proper care his death need not have happened.

The “chain man” died before the 100,000 Homes Campaign existed, so he never had the opportunity to see if it could have helped him. However, as Bryan’s tale reflects, the Campaign cannot succeed alone. The 100,000 Homes Campaign is a lifesaving project for hundreds of Chicagoans; but, without the resources to care for a person’s physical and mental health, people in crisis will continue to die on our city streets.

Jim LoBianco, StreetWise Executive Director

I would greatly appreciate your thoughts and suggestions. You are welcome to contact me at either tipline@streetwise.org or (773) 334-6600 (ext. 22).

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