Seeing the world through a homeless man's eyes

Opinion: Columns

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By Eileen Hourihan McCarthy

Danny Wally sits on the cement pillar outside of the Oak Park Post Office most days. He said he feels "blessed each and every day to be here," meaning in this life and on this earth. This statement initially seems a bit ironic because Danny is a homeless man. He spends his days and nights roaming around the Chicago area, using the Blue Line el trains as his vehicle. Danny rides the el from end to end — from the O'Hare Airport el station down into the city, out to the Forest Park terminus and back again. 

Danny gets the things he needs to survive in this life, such as food, clothing and shelter, within walking distance of the Blue Line. 

When I asked him where he eats, he said, "At the O'Hare el stop, the people who work in the snack shop upstairs give us sandwiches," and "I can get three meals a day at a restaurant down on Lake Street" in Oak Park. 

Sometimes he gets off the train in the city and goes to "a friend's place." Danny's friend lets him keep the few pieces of clothing he owns at his place. Carrying his clothes in a backpack, Danny said, would be too heavy to carry and would hurt his back, so he travels day to day carrying as little as possible. 

"Anyway," he added, "somebody would steal them if I had them with me." 

Sometimes Danny sleeps on the el train — on the plastic seats. 

"It's not comfortable, but it's warm," he said. On the el, he and other homeless people "talk and kill time. We sleep at the shelters on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. They have floor mats for us and bunk beds at some of them." 

When I asked Danny if he received a pillow to put his head on at the shelters, he let out a soft little chuckle and replied, "No, no pillows. We make our own." When he needs to, Danny said that he can take a shower at a church on St. Louis Street in Chicago.

Danny said that when he and other homeless people sleep on the trains, they get off in the morning and go to the Oak Park Public Library. "It's warm in there, and the library doesn't close until 9 p.m. At the library, we read books and use the computers." 

Sometimes Danny will go to the Garfield Community Service Center, located at 10 S. Kedzie Ave. in Chicago, to sign up for housing. He says he has been waiting for over a year for a place to live. There just isn't enough housing to cover the demand. 

I couldn't help but notice that Danny is obese, has tired, red eyes, and a gentle, accepting disposition. He said he has diabetes, his legs and feet are swollen, he suffers from asthma, back pain, and can't see or hear very well. Danny said he has been denied disability a few times. However, he does have a doctor, and he can also go to the Cook County Hospital emergency room. 

Danny said his family lives far away, his mother lives in a nursing home, and "you don't find friends when you are out here." His eyes filled with tears as he spoke. He said he struggles every day to survive. "I can't work; my body won't do it. I can't lift nothing. I tried for a job as a security guard and a janitor, but I can't lift heavy stuff no more," he said. "I need you to help me. I need a place. Get me off the street. A little money would help me too." 

So when Danny told me he feels "blessed each and every day to be here," my initial reaction was to see the irony of his thoughts and words. As his story unfolded, I allowed myself to walk in his shoes, to feel the loneliness, the hopelessness, the physical and emotional pain in his life, and I realized that his gratitude comes from having a deep understanding of some of the inequities in our society. He has probably found a deeper meaning to his life due to the way in which he lives. 

I was raised in a gentle and safe household and have experienced the concept of homelessness only through reading articles on the subject. I don't know what Danny's life was like as a child, but I do know that he experiences the difficulty of life on the street as a homeless man every single day. Danny said he doesn't remember the last time that he sat down to a dinner, relaxed, and watched television after the meal. 

How many of us can say that?

Eileen Hourihan McCarthy, an Oak Park resident, is a registered dietitian, lifestyle coach, and lecturer.

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