Jimmie Williams, 56, was an individual whom almost every other street person in Rogers Park and Evanston seemed to know and want to greet with a wave, a nod or a smile. Homeless in the area for most of the last 20 to 30 years, he was a gentle, slender giant over 6 feet tall and quick to friendly laughter.
Mr. Williams died of a heart attack February 5 in his Near South Side Chicago apartment, which he recently acquired through Connections for the Homeless in Evanston.
His kindnesses toward others in the area were legendary.
“I first met Jimmie almost 20 years ago,” Cornelius McDade, a friend, said. “I, my wife and small child had abandoned the projects and our possessions after the young boy who lived below us was shot and killed in the same area where our child regularly played.
“We spent our first night on the North Side sleeping under a tree. Jimmie, whom I had never met, showed up with blankets for us as well as information on the various resources available in the area. I have no idea where the blankets came from, but I have learned why he did it—he really liked to help people.
“I saw Jimmie dozens of times do for others who were down and out the same kind of thing he did for us. I was really proud to be his friend.”
Homelessness for him was a daily challenge. It meant staying in a shelter when he could, curling up in the back of rental trucks when they were available, sleeping on the ground in a cemetery when he had to, staying in Chicago-Read Mental Health Center for several months when the weather was bad and he could convince them he needed therapy, in jail on occasion and with friends, especially when he had $10, $15 or $20 with which to thank them.
He often slept nights on the “L,” spelling out the words on the ads in an effort to learn to read.
Before Chicago Historical Bookworks in Evanston closed in 2005, he worked part time for the bookstore using the titles of the books the same way he did the CTA ads.
He also did odd jobs for Evanston residents, including on mornings when it snowed going door-to-door to shovel the snow for whatever the people would pay him.
Mr. Williams had a reputation for sharing with beggars on the street. It might be a half of a sandwich he was eating or, if he had it, a dollar toward a cup of coffee. He was never ostentatious about doing so.
A woman whom he was helping once asked him what his mother had been like.
“She fed and took care of every kid in the neighborhood,” he said.
At one point, he was living with a woman and her teenage son and able to help out with the rent. During this time, he learned that his two orphaned nephews in their teens were living on the streets on the South Side. Their guardian was reportedly completely ignoring them.
He took the two teenagers and walked them to school every morning.
The system, however, caught up with Mr. Williams and the two boys. Tragedy followed. He missed a meeting with his probation officer, was summarily taken to court and sent away for six months to a prison in Southern Illinois. The woman lost their apartment and moved with her son into a homeless shelter. The two teenagers were forced to go back on the street, where one was shot dead. The other moved to Indiana.
His most recent incarceration was for using a CTA transfer that a policeman saw him accept from a passenger getting off the train.
He did not suffer bullies easily, especially if they were picking on someone who was helpless or smaller than them.
He spoke clearly, but mumbled when someone would ask him if he were hungry.
“A little bit,” he would say. “Maybe, if you have something to eat.”
Survivors include a sister and many homeless people and friends in Evanston and Rogers Park.
By Kenan Heise