I don't write about the poor as much as I should. Wrapped in my comfy middle class bubble, it's too easy to spend my time toddling off to operas, raising tomatoes and focusing on cool objects, and I usually don't think to gaze beyond my sphere at the suffering all around. Part is no doubt due to my personality—it's not a natural inclination for a self-centered, bookish guy. Though, in my defense, when the opportunity comes my way, I leap at it.
Last year, I ran into someone who works for the Night Ministry, and told him I've always wanted to write about their work with poor communities. Why it took that chance encounter, and I did just call them (or they call me, for that matter) says something about the accidental way a lot of stories come about. Anyway, I went out with their mobile care van, which led to this column about children being fed by the Night Ministry. While reporting the story, I heard that the Crib, their Halsted Street shelter is filled almost every night, and the surplus young people are given CTA cards and tossed out into the street, so I went back to write this column.
Last week I heard from the Night Ministry, with this story about a very sick woman and two concerned cops. I couldn't reach the cops -- police despise the media, and their whole besieged, wall-of-blue thing keeps them from acting like a public agency with a responsibility to discuss openly what they do. But even not talking to the officers involved, I decided I had enough of a story to put in the paper, as my Monday column.
You go to the police for help, not the other way around. They don’t come to you for aid, generally. But that was what two 14th District Chicago Police officers did last week.
“They were very hesitant,” said Nancy Schreiber, a nurse with the Night Ministry, working at its medical clinic bus in Humboldt Park last Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.
“They came to the door of the bus and said, ‘Can you help us please?’ I’ve never been approached by the police to help them before. They said, ‘We have this woman and we don’t know what to do.’”
Schreiber followed the officers to a bus shelter near California and Division.
In her 12 years with the Night Ministry, the last line of assistance for Chicago’s impoverished, Schreiber has seen much that medical professionals rarely see: trenchfoot, frostbite, gangrene, untreated fractures, gashes that victims sutured themselves with clear tape. “These people are so marginalized, they hesitate to seek health care,” she said. “These people just suffer.”
The woman the cops brought Schneider to was certainly suffering, lying on a bus stop bench, covered with huge open sores.
"She looked 70," said Schreiber, who later found the woman is 53. "Probably 80 pounds soaking wet. She had these lesions all over."
Schreiber immediately realized what she was seeing: MRSA - methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, a hard-to-treat staph infection common with the homeless.
"I see it all the time," said Schreiber, who ran back to the bus, filled a shopping bag with bandages and ointment and tape. "I knew what she needed right now was to take care of those wounds." She also grabbed their intern Megan Libreros, 25, a student at UIC's Jane Addams College of Social Work, in her second week on the job. Her job was to talk to the woman. "She was really worked up and did not want to go to the hospital," said Libreros.
The police officers offered to take the woman to Cook County hospital. "Which is very unusual," said Schreiber, who told her, 'You're in a great deal of pain. The only thing to help you would be IV antibiotics. You really need to go to a hospital."
"I can't do that," the woman answered.
She had been to county, she said, and while they treated her well, on the third day she went into the hall to look for a nurse, and they locked her in restraints. An ambulance was also out of the question.
"If we call an ambulance, it'll take them to nearest hospital, which is Norwegian [American Hospital]," said Schreiber. "They are very punitive to homeless people. They don't give them treatment, push them out of emergency room and then bill them extraordinary amounts. We don't send anyone there anymore because they are not treated with any respect." (I called Norwegian and talked to their spokeswoman and she had no comment.)
The woman was wearing what looked like pajamas, the thin material sticking to the wounds when the nurse tried to pull it back.
"Every time, the wounds would open up," said Libreros. "She was screaming with pain," This was the point where some cops would have tipped their hats and gone about their business. But these guys stuck around.
"They were really nice," Libreros said. "They really cared about her and tried to make sure she got the best care she needed. I've been doing this for a few years, I've had a lot of bad experiences working with the Chicago Police. But they were great."
"What's wonderful is the involvement of the police," said Schreiber. "The humanity, overwhelmingly positive, above and beyond the call of duty. I called the station, trying to get their names. They haven't called back." That's typical. I called the 14th district a few times, too, plus news affairs, knowing they'd never respond, and they didn't.
The cops on the scene, however, did what was necessary - maybe. "I believed that death was imminent, she was so toxic from these wounds," Schreiber said. "One would be stressful; she had them everywhere."
Schreiber told the cops the woman was in no condition to decide. So they took her to St. Mary's - at least they said they were.
"We called St. Mary's, and have no way of knowing if she got treatment or what happened after the police left with her," said Schreiber. "It was heartwarming, to see how these two gentlemen tried to help her."
Libreros was able to learn a little about the woman, her name and history. She had a place to stay up until July. Then a Social Security check didn't arrive. A reminder that people on the street are just that.
"They are people," Libreros said. "They are not different from any of us. They're either down on hard times or have mental illness. We're all really close to being in that place someday. No telling what in her life took a turn and went wrong. That could be me in 10 years, or you, or anybody else."