This is also the end of the line, figuratively, for Chicagoans whose combination of mental illness, bad luck, bad life choices and inability to manage in a bad, COVID-ravaged economy forces them to ride the trains tonight, seeking a warm, dry refuge on this 30 degree night at the end of February.
“It’s been rough,” says Ladislao Vasquez, shortly after 9 p.m. He worked construction for 20 years, he says, but lost an eye after being shot. “Times are hard.”
He is here because on Mondays and Wednesdays from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. the Night Ministry, the final strands of Chicago’s frayed social service net, runs a sort of field hospital/free commissary/clinic for the homeless, offering services of a social worker, piles of supplies—socks, hats, underwear, combs — paper bags of snacks, pallets of water and a nurse or, tonight, a doctor.
“I’m setting up my office,” says Dr. Ralph Ryan, a retired cardiologist, unfolding a gray screen by a staircase in the station’s entry, to offer a shred of privacy to homeless patients as they explain their afflictions and addictions to him.
What prompts a 69-year-old physician to leave the relative paradise of Elmhurst to treat homeless people for free six nights a month? The answer is deceptively simple.
“I enjoy serving the underserved,” says Ryan, who has been doing this four years. “I started on the bus” — the rolling medical clinic bus that the Night Ministry sends into low-income areas of the city — ”then gravitated to street medicine.”