Thursday, December 26, 2013

"He really doesn't bother anybody"

     For months, whenever the train would pull into the Metra station at the Glen, going north, I would look out the window and see that red van, filled with stuff. "There has to be a story here," I thought. There was.
     If you take the Metra Milwaukee North line, you might notice it, eventually.
     A red van, a 1999 Dodge conversion van, parked at the Glen of North Glenview station, in a corner of the parking lot by the Prairie concrete silos.
     It is always there, weekday or weekend, rain or shine. A few bikes covered with a blue tarp hooked on back. Snow piled on the roof in winter; in summer, folding chairs set out front. The windows are filled with stuff. Somebody seems to be living there.
     Somebody is.
     For the past year, Mark T. Johnson has made that van his full-time home. And if you are wondering how that can happen in a well-off suburb like Glenview, well, therein lies a tale.
     "I didn't want to be out in the rain, so I came inside," said Johnson, 59, sitting in the deserted Glen of North Glenview train station late one wet Saturday afternoon, watching cable TV on a system he'd rigged. He spends most of his day here or over in the Glenview Public Library. Many people do wonder about the van.
     "I been there long enough, the majority of people notice it since it's in the same spot," Johnson said. Few say anything to him, though.
     "Not to me, directly, but the woman who runs Lucy's cafe, sometimes people say things to her, and she repeats them to me," Johnson said.
     Pam Counihan works the morning shift at Lucy's, the coffee stand in the station. She used to give Johnson coffee and food, but commuters complained — he doesn't bathe as much as is ideal, living in a van. The police spoke to him. Now, he stays away from the station during morning rush hour.
     "He really doesn't bother anybody," Counihan said. "He's just homeless."
     Johnson does not smoke or drink, having stopped in his early 30s. "I just lost the urge," he said. He has no criminal record. And if you're wondering how Johnson is allowed to live at the train station, his answer is surprising.
     "I went to the police department and got permission," he said.
     Which is close to, but not exactly, the truth. The truth is even more surprising. The police version is not that Johnson went to them, but that they went to him. His living in the parking lot of the Glen of North Glenview was their idea or, rather, the idea of Stefan Johnson, deputy chief of the Glenview Police Department.

   "He's a longtime Glenview resident; he lived in our trailer park," Stefan Johnson said. "He's homeless. When he lost his home, he was living in his van for a few years, trying to get back on his feet, but he wasn't going about it in the right way."
     Mark Johnson would move the van to different locations around Glenview and live on residential streets, or try to. There, he was really noticed.
     "If you came out of your house to take little Timmy to school and that van was parked in front of the house . . . well, a lot of citizens wanted to run him out of town for parking on their little private streets," Stefan Johnson said. "It isn't illegal."
     The solution, in the deputy chief's eyes, was clear.
     "After a few months of complaints, I went to see if I could tuck him away," he said. The deputy chief settled on the parking lot by the Metra station. "That seems to be the place. I thought it would be a good idea. He's down on his luck, living in neighborhoods in Glenview. People were starting to get their hair raised. I went over and sat and talked to him, to see what we could do to help him out. I said, 'Hey, people are scared of you. Why don't you park here?' "
     So he did.

     Mark Johnson was born in Chicago, grew up in Lake Zurich, then moved with his family to Connecticut. He always worked, driving for a bus company in Glenview, 10 years for a truck company in Wood Dale.
     "I jumped from place to place," he said.
     He stopped working in February 2006 after a spat with a supervisor.
     "I left in very bad standing," he said. "I did something." In essence, a supervisor yelled at him for using a washroom on company time.
      "So I started doing it outside," he said.
     Make no mistake: Johnson is a man who can be . . . flinty.
     "He has his ups and downs," Counihan agreed. "How would you be if you slept in a van in the dead of winter?"
     He certainly has his pride. Offer him money, and he will refuse. Ask if he needs anything, and he says no. He has a brother in Homewood, and his elderly mother lives in Glenview. But they are estranged.
     The true mystery, of course, is why the police didn't just find a law and put him in jail. That's what most departments would do. But if you talk to the homeless man and to the deputy chief, you soon realize that they have more in common than a last name.
     Living in a van, Johnson feels the weight of contempt from his fellow suburbanites.
     "They think I'm diseased or something," he said.
     And Deputy Chief Johnson . . . at first, he doesn't want to talk about himself. "Let's talk about Mark," he said with a laugh. But in time it comes out: born on the South Side, into a politically active family with ties to the Nation of Islam; the first African American on the Glenview force, 25 years ago, at a time when African Americans in Glenview were about as rare as homeless people. Let's just say it did not make him into a zealous enforcer of the collective suburban imperative to enjoy a world completely scrubbed of the Mark Johnsons of life.
     Glenview residents "just wanted the guy arrested," the deputy chief said. "They just didn't see his side of things. They wonder why he gets to park there. They won't see the big picture."
     Which is?
     "He has just as much right to be here as anyone else," Stefan Johnson said. "I've always been fair, rich or poor, black or white, everybody gets the same shake with me."
     Asked what other village officials he consulted with on this — the chief? the mayor? — Stefan Johnson said, "This is all me."
     Then, Deputy Chief Johnson did something that really surprised me: He asked that I not write about Mark Johnson because either Glenview residents would show up with torches and demand he be run off the parking lot where he has found refuge for the past year, or more homeless people would arrive, seeking refuge.
     "I'm going to try to talk you out of that story," he said. "I'm just trying to be decent toward him."
     So I did something that surprised me: I didn't write anything. I held off for three months while I tried, in a desultory way, to find something for Mark Johnson to do.
     Newsflash: It's hard to find someone who will welcome a homeless man, even one with a valid commercial driver's license.
     Even people in the help-the-homeless business. Organizations like CARA train people for work, but you need to have an actual address. They'd help him find a shelter, but Mark Johnson doesn't want to live in a shelter. He has a home: his van. He tries to think of his life as camping. He likes camping.
     His said his dream was to go work in Baraboo, Wis., because he used to enjoy going camping there.
     "It's pretty," he said.
     So I phoned the mayor of Baraboo, who listened sympathetically but did nothing. Phoned him a few times. And wrote. Nothing. Can't say I blame him. A tough task to help anyone, and Mark Johnson perhaps tougher than most.
     "He likes being independent," Deputy Chief Johnson said. "I tell him, hey, we can get him into such and such a program. He tells me, 'Hey, I've done what I can. I'm just in a bad situation.' I've set him up for interviews, but some part of him just turns people away."
     But not the Glenview police force, which keeps an eye on him.
     "Everybody knows him, most of the cops," the deputy chief said. "We act as an intermediary between him and the town. We take him food or clothes or money."
     What's next? I decided to print this because I realized that avoiding the risk of driving him away would just be assuming responsibility for his staying, and I wasn't comfortable with that either.
     "I know he can't be there forever," Deputy Chief Johnson said. "He's just a guy down on his luck. Maybe he's better left alone. I hope he can get a streak of luck. What's he's doing is not illegal. I'm sure that if he had a chance he wouldn't want to live that way."
     So what kind of story is this? A Christmas miracle, where somebody reads this and finds a place for Mark Johnson that isn't a train station parking lot? A Christmas outrage, where the good citizens of Glenview band together to eject the homeless man in their midst?
     I don't know; the ending hasn't happened yet.


  1. He should move to Williston North Dakota. The oil industry is booming there & since he has a commercial driver's license he would be able to easily get a job.
    And since he already lives in a van, he's ahead of the game since there's no housing in North Dakota.

  2. Your neighborhood would do the same if he was parked on your private streets. Most would anywhere.


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