‘She was somebody to us’

In 2022, six people I know from Lower Wacker and the Loop died. The first passed the day after Valentine’s Day, the last on December 2, when I was midway through my first draft of this story and had to adjust my word count to fit in a sixth death when I thought I was mourning five. 

I won’t pretend that I knew each of the dead well. Some of them I met once or twice, while others I knew for two years. Ralph was shy and had a sweet smile. Polo was hard, but his interior was soft as caramel. Rose could fight you or hug you. Brittany loved the uncharted life she lived and chose it to the end. But each time someone died last year, I remade my altar. 

The essential components stay the same: two candles and something sweet-smelling to burn. A thumb-sized statue of the Virgin Mary from my mom. Coins, because metal, like us, comes from the earth, and because these hustlers loved money and deserve to go into the afterlife with full pockets. Then, I add something that reminds me of that person. For Ron, called “Raving Ronnie” in high school because of his goofy outfits and Day-Glo bracelets, I filled a shot glass of rum, the liquor that reminds me most of party boys. For Hope, ever the lady, a shot of vodka and a bottle of purple nail polish I thought she might like.

Each one of these deaths was preventable, including the two accidental drug overdoses. (One cause of death remains undetermined.) Culturally, most of us shrug off overdose deaths as inevitable tragedies—the result of ravenous addiction, if we’re being bighearted, or the result of moral failing, if we’re not. What I need you to understand is that these deaths are policy choices; they are preventable, and we all are accountable for them. 

According to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office, 1,599 people died from opioid overdose in 2022. A backlog on autopsies means that number is expected to rise by an additional 400-500, bringing the death total over 2,000 and breaking the record of 1,936 set in 2021. There is evidence that suggests these numbers are an undercount. If you don’t understand the scope of a story, you can’t change how it ends. 

“Believe half of what you see and a quarter of what you hear,” photojournalist Lloyd DeGrane reminds me, and himself, whenever a particularly incendiary rumor winds its way through downtown. 

Many other deaths—blood infections, kidney failures, etc.—are directly related to addiction but are not counted among drug deaths. Even more directly, these deaths are related to us—the people who are housed and not addicted, who have access to health care and alderpeople, who take pictures of the visibly mentally ill or impoverished asleep on the Red Line and post them in online discussions about “crime” on the CTA—and the policy choices we support. 

No one can stop someone else from doing what they want to do, but we can make the circumstances in which they do it less deadly. In fact, in every neighborhood in the city, some family member, drug user, or harm reduction worker is doing just that. The Chicago Recovery Alliance, The Night Ministry, and the West Side Heroin / Opioid Task Force are mobile throughout the city. All provide free syringes, free fentanyl testing kits, free Narcan (the opioid overdose reversal nasal spray anyone can get and learn how to administer here), and more. But they can only reach so many people so often. Imagine, for example, if someone who required new needles could walk into Walgreens and get them for free, thereby avoiding the countless risks that come with reusing or sharing. Instead, they have to pay approximately five dollars per box of ten syringes (limit two boxes) and, for some reason, show a state-issued ID. Out of the 20 or so folks I know downtown, approximately two have their IDs. Without a birth certificate, Social Security card, or permanent address, it can take months to obtain one. 

If you ask people what kind of housing they need, they’ll tell you. If housed, people can use drugs safely and hygienically, instead of in tents with poor lighting, no running water, and prone to frequent invasions by rats, no matter how clean they live. In 2022, Mayor Lightfoot and her City Council allies could have supported Bring Chicago Home, a proposal that would increase the Real Estate Transfer Tax (a one-time tax paid when a property is sold) by 1.9 percent on properties over $1 million, creating a dedicated revenue stream of approximately $164 million annually for permanent, supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness. But on November 14, 2022, Lightfoot and 25 alderpeople (you can read their names here) blocked this proposal from even being discussed in City Council. The next day, my friend Ron died, sick and unhoused, in a stairwell in the Loop. He was 37 years old.

Even the deaths caused by drug overdose carry more nuance than we give them. For example, the dope I’ve seen test results for in the last three years is an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink mix: always some amount of fentanyl or another analog, plus benzos, animal tranquilizers (like xylazine, whose side effects appear on limbs as rotting wounds that can require amputation), or Benadryl as fillers that mimic the drowsiness of an opioid while further slowing down breathing. The presence of true heroin is vanishingly rare. It’s why more than one researcher argues for calling the so-called “opioid epidemic” the “mass poisoning epidemic” instead: without a regulated, decriminalized, safer supply of drugs guaranteeing the integrity of the ingested substances, people will continue to be at higher risk for overdose and death. With collective willpower, bravery, and a willingness to try something new, we could ensure that people know exactly what is in their drugs, reducing overdose and overdose death. 

Everyone who died, I met while they lived on Lower Wacker or in the Loop during my weekly walks with photojournalist Lloyd DeGrane, our backpacks full of sterile syringes, snorting kits, condoms, and other lifesaving supplies people who use drugs need but often have little access to. Other people have been doing harm reduction work, legally or illegally, for longer than I’ve been alive. All of the suggestions I’ve listed come from my conversations with them, or others in their community, or the public health workers, caseworkers, and harm reduction allies who fight every day for the right for people to live safely and with dignity. I’m no expert, I’ve never been addicted or unhoused, and my grief and rage are not the biggest in this city, but still, six people I know died last year. I think you should know them too. Here are their stories, via the people who knew and loved them, with some names and identifying details changed for their protection.

Rafael “Ralph” Fernandez Jr. March 20, 1980–February 15, 2022

“Ralph was working so hard, he didn’t have no downtime,” said his friend Dan. Credit: Lloyd DeGrane

I knew what Ralph looked like before I met him, at least from the mask up. In March 2021, he was standing outside of the Ewing Annex Hotel and agreed to let Lloyd snap his photo: it ended up running with my story on the Ewing, the last men’s-only, single-room occupancy hotel in Chicago. Light-brown skin, dark-brown eyes, and a head that was perpetually crooked down, forcing him to look up at the world through the frame of his brows. A couple months later, I met Ralph for real a few blocks away from the hotel, walking with his best friend Dan to go buy drugs. “Hey, it’s me!” he said, smiling now. “I’m the one on page 14!”

Ralph died the day after Valentine’s Day in 2022. One frigid December afternoon ten months later, I met with Dan at the hustle spot he and Ralph used to share. For years, Ralph flew his sign on one side of traffic, Dan on the other. Now Dan, a sun-weathered white man in his late 30s, works alone. We put his sign and my backpack on the frozen ground and sat on them.  Against a brilliant sunset, Dan smoked a cigarillo, careful to wave the smoke away from my direction while he talked. 

Ralph was born in the mainland U.S. and raised in Puerto Rico. When he was about ten, an uncle in Indiana died, and the flight his mother took to get to the mainland was so turbulent that she refused to ever board a plane again. Ralph, his dad, and his brother moved to her, but Indiana was not a welcoming new home. Spanish was Ralph’s first language, which made him a target for white bullies at his new middle school. According to Dan, adulthood is where Ralph really did well. “Most like everybody’s story at one time, he had decent cars, his own apartment, girlfriends,” Dan said. But at some point, he started smoking crack and became addicted, losing his apartment and his job. Ralph told Dan that once he started stealing from his family, they had no choice but to turn him out. 

According to Dan, Ralph came to Chicago looking for housing and for work sometime around 2016. There were some leads, but ultimately, Ralph lived unhoused until he died. Once in the city, his substance use intensified: “Once you come out here in Chicago, dope can be an easy trap to fall into, especially on the street,” Dan explained. Ralph first knew Dan’s wife, Rhonda. After she died of a blood infection, Dan began sleeping at a spot in the Loop where dope was easy to access. Soon, he and Ralph lived there together. “Within a short amount of time, we were always together. You seen one of us, the other one wasn’t too far away.”

They worked their hustle spot together, they went out to the west side to buy drugs together when the Loop was dry. Whatever they did, wherever they were, they had each other’s backs. In one story Dan told me, Ralph’s Spanish came in very useful “when we were at McDonald’s and workers were talking crap about us, making fun because we were homeless.” After a minute or two of pretending not to listen, Ralph would interject in Spanish, embarrassing the workers with his triumphant reveal. “You two are worse than a married couple,” others would tell them, listening to the friends comfortably bicker. 

Dan loved his friend, but their relationship wasn’t uncomplicated: Ralph wasn’t a gifted panhandler, and on the days his money was particularly low, he’d spiral with fear of becoming dopesick. He did things Dan knows he wasn’t proud of. Dan told me twice that Ralph had a very good heart and good intentions. Nine months after Ralph died, Dan remains furious about his death. I saw it in his squint, heard it in the forceful way his words shot out of his mouth. After our interview, he texted me: the dead can’t speak its up to us the people who new them the people that they left behind the ones that cared about them to tell there story.

At some point during the winter of 2022, Ralph told Dan he had a blood infection. At the time, Ralph was working security for a person, also unhoused and addicted, who sold drugs to support their habit. “Ralph was working so hard, he didn’t have no downtime,” said Dan. For reasons of his own, he told few people he was sick, but I heard from one or two others who bought drugs from his employer that, in the weeks or months leading up to his death, Ralph spent at least some time at a hospital.

Dan’s wife Rhonda died of a blood infection precisely because she was terrified to go to the hospital. During our interview and in ensuing phone calls and texts, he remained convinced his best friend died the same way. “These people got blood clots and blood infections. They’re conscious of this for days or weeks, and they’re getting worse and weak,” he told me. “Their bodies are hurting everywhere. They’re throwing up bile and burning up with a fever. They do some dope, and it masks it for a little bit. But once that infection gets in your blood, it’s not gonna go away by itself.” People know they need to go to the hospital, know they need IV antibiotics at the least. But as Dan said, unhoused people with substance disorders also know that if they go to the hospital, they risk being treated “like dirty junkies.” 

The Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Ralph’s death an accidental polydrug overdose (meaning that more than one substance contributed to his death). Fentanyl, cocaine, diphenhydramine (Benadryl), a fentanyl analogue called despropionyl fentanyl, and possible “trace amounts of heroin” were all found in his system. There’s no secondary cause of death listed, no mention of infection in Ralph’s record. When I shared this news with Dan, he was frustrated. He and Ralph did the same dope. How could Ralph die and Dan live? And Ralph had been dealing with some kind of infection—didn’t that count for anything?

“Tell Ralph’s story, but even more than that, tell that the hospital system needs to be changed,” he told me. “If people knew they could go to the hospital and get properly medicated for their withdrawal symptoms, they would go. Everybody out here knows somebody who died of an infection. They would’ve gone to the hospital, but they feared being dopesick.”

Demarco “Polo” HawesFebruary 13, 1993-March 12, 2022

“You know I don’t wear this fuckin’ mask for no COVID shit,” Polo told the photographer. Credit: Lloyd DeGrane

Polo worked on the same street. I’d long heard about Polo before I met him: Polo and Reavis, Polo and Reavis. Two Latino brothers who had lived in bus stops and tents in the Loop for years, wherever one was, the other was surely nearby. Polo was younger by four years, yet it was easy to mistake him for the elder: tough and cool as he hustled, giving me a nod when I said hey, fast and steady when pushing Reavis’s wheelchair down Randolph in the snow.

Two deaths, one street, one month apart, and both of the dead were seasoned users who knew to go slow, knew not to use alone. Before the medical examiner’s report came back, the rumors flew, fast as bullets. Was Polo, like Ralph, quietly ill with something other than dope sickness? Was the dope both men used deliberately poisoned? As with Ralph, the medical examiner ruled Polo’s death an accidental polydrug overdose: in his case, despropionyl fentanyl, Benadryl, fentanyl, and heroin. 

Polo and Reavis were born in Chicago. Polo lived on and off the streets since he was 13 years old. In childhood, “we got taken by DCFS,” Reavis said. For a little while, the brothers were able to stay together. An aunt took them in, but “things didn’t really go well” between Polo and her, and soon, she sent him back to DCFS. 

Once in their teens, the two brothers gave up on housing and the system that was supposedly trying to protect them. “We decided to try our best to make it,” Reavis said. They began to live in the Loop, panhandling and stealing to survive. The brothers developed relationships with a few regulars who would buy them meals. 

I interviewed Reavis where he lives now, in a stretch of tents near railroad tracks downtown. That’s when I finally learned his name isn’t Reavis, or Rebus, as I’ve so often heard, but Arreavis—three syllables, ah-RREE-vis, like a bird’s call. The roar and clang of incoming trains punctuated our conversation and made it hard to hear. Arreavis is disabled, and his left hand is swollen with infection. Amputation has been recommended, but he’s so far refused for a number of reasons, including financial. “My money hand,” he says: when they see it while he’s panhandling downtown, people tend to give. Throughout our interview, he remained seated inside his tent in the dark with his hand tucked inside his shirt, the soft accumulation of clothing and other living supplies strewn over the tent floor like moss. I squatted at the entrance, my microphone outstretched. 

“It hurts sometimes because I know no matter what, we’re not gonna see each other again, we’re not gonna talk to each other. You can talk, but you’re not gonna get a response,” Arreavis said quietly. He mumbled something else, but the squeal of Metra brakes blotted it out.

“That kinda helps me get through the days.”

What does? I asked.

“Talking to God.”

Arreavis’s best memories of Polo are simple: “Me and him together, looking out for each other, making sure each other ate. Chilling together.” They were each other’s first and best friends. There was nothing they couldn’t discuss. 

“Even though I was the older brother, I know one thing. We was close, real close. We would’ve killed for each other,” Arreavis said. Polo did much of the visible, physical caretaking for them both, but Arreavis supported his brother in ways that went unseen. At some point, Polo spent some time in jail. When he came out, Arreavis made sure he had a place to stay. “He didn’t have no job, but I made things happen in ways that some people look down on,” Arreavis explained. “I had to do what I had to do.”

I asked Arreavis what he wanted to make sure people knew about Polo. His reply was the longest answer he’d given all day. “He was a survivor, but he was strong,” he said. “He had two kids and lost his baby mama. He tried his best, but I feel like things was a little too much. But I’ll always love him, and he’ll always be in my heart. I know he’d want me to get through this, and I know he’d want me to make it up out this struggle. And that’s what I’m gonna do.”

Valerie “Val” ClarkDecember 18, 1986–May 9, 2022

Val poses for a portrait at the camp she called home before the city cleared it to build the Riverwalk. Credit: Lloyd DeGrane

One icy day, Lloyd and I were out searching for the Pigeon Lady when we met Val instead. Lloyd had known her for six years, but it was my first time meeting the woman I’d heard much about. I’d heard she was pretty and knew how to fight, knew how to do what she had to stay alive. Val had a pale face and long, dark hair that swept in front of it while she dozed on the sidewalk outside of a Dunkin’ Donuts on Lake Street. When Lloyd woke her up, she smiled. We had donuts and coffee, and I interviewed her for an hour. She was funny and smart. I can’t find the tape, but after she died, Lloyd wrote a remembrance that he’s agreed to share here. 

Sometimes you do such crazy things with someone that you never forget the moment you did it. Two years ago, I went looking for the body of a person that I knew had been dead for five days. My guide was a woman named Valerie, Val. She was tough as nails and peppered sentences with “fuck this and fuck that,” and “motherfuckin’ bitch ass” when she was really pissed. But this time, it was different. We were on a mission to find the body of someone’s brother, someone’s son, a beloved family member of a family neither one of us had ever known. Valerie led me to a field on the west side of Chicago.

“Don’t get me shot out here Val,” I told her.

“I kind of know where his body might be,” she assured me.

No one else wanted to be involved, just Valerie.

From that field, across a busy street, we could see people walking in and out of the drug house where he, the dead person, had bought the dime bag of dope that killed him. Rumors swirled that the body of this street person, a sweet soul, known to both of us, had been abandoned in that field, left to decompose without dignity. We searched. It was hot. The grass was high. The brush was dense. The people at the drug house looked at us across the field. 

We smelled the corpse before we could see it. We saw a leg, then an arm, then the body, stiff and swollen. Valerie turned away, crying. I called 911. I hadn’t expected her to cry. She had seen death before, many times. She lived on the streets. Demons tore at her soul. But inside, there was compassion and hard love. 

The fire department came. They called a hazardous waste team. I looked across the avenue, drug business as usual, shoppers shopping, servers serving. 

Valerie was inconsolable. She knew the dead man better than I did. “He didn’t deserve to die like this,” she said.

Val was my friend. She was tough. Valerie slept on the streets and roamed dark, dangerous alleys. She was always ready to battle. Her boyfriend called her Rocky. She had been in many fights. She, too, was someone’s daughter, someone’s sister. But today was her last fight. “Ain’t that a bitch,” Valerie might say.

“She loved her fur babies and hoped to have babies of her own one day,” her aunt Cathy Clark-Schramer wrote to me. “Now she is with Jesus, my parents, and my sister. She is with those who love her very much. I like to think of it as they were right by her side and she felt their love, so she went with them.” 

Brittany BurkeJanuary 21, 1990–October 30, 2022

“She was fearless,” said Brittany’s mom Terrie. Credit: Lloyd DeGrane

As a baby, the moment Brittany could crawl, “she was on the go,” her mom Terrie told me. “She was fiercely independent.” We talked one night, shortly before Christmas, while Terrie drove home after her 11-hour workday as a shipping clerk. She now lives in Tennessee, but she raised Brittany and her younger brother in the Chicago area. Everyone downtown mentions Brittany’s cackle and teasing humor when they remember her. (“Jesus, she was such a wonderful person, I can’t say it enough,” her ex-boyfriend Mike Ferguson told me. “She had a really funny laugh . . . it was this little snicker.”) Terrie’s voice on the other end of the line is quiet, tired, but wry. I can hear the resemblance.

“She was fearless,” said Terrie simply, when I asked what she admired most about her daughter. “She loved the city, loved the hustle and bustle. She didn’t have to live that way”—unhoused and roving, camping outside—“but she chose to.” Terrie chuckled a little. “I could never do it.” 

“I’d always told her she could come home, but she had to go get treatment. She needed more than I could do.” Brittany tried multiple rehabs. For a year as a teen, she tried living with her dad out in the North Carolina woods. But the care she needed was complex. Brittany had depression and bipolar disorder and a heart murmur. In her 20s, she contracted endocarditis after an infection from a reused needle settled into her heart valves. She also had Hepatitis C, which—like endocarditis—is a preventable condition if, for example, you have unencumbered access to sterile needles. 

This summer, Brittany’s kidneys started failing. Then, Terrie said, in July, Brittany tried to check herself into Rush and vomited for 17 hours in the emergency waiting room before she gave up and left. Two days later, she tried UIC instead. The doctors she saw realized she’d had a brain aneurysm and admitted her. 

Brittany had brain surgery; a few days later, the bleeding slowed but not stopped, her brain was cauterized. She began dialysis shortly after. And yet, “she survived all that,” said Terrie, marveling a little. Despite her grueling work schedule, throughout July and August, she repeatedly drove from Tennessee and Chicago to be with her daughter. In September, Brittany came home.

“It was good. It was too short,” Terrie said of their time together. When Brittany went in for her first brain surgery, she weighed only 98 pounds. It’s a point of pride for Terrie that, once back with her mom, Brittany’s weight went up to 112 pounds. Terrie and Brittany’s brother, who also lived with them, teased that her drug of choice was now cereal: specifically, Golden Grahams and Lucky Charms. 

They had a month. “One Sunday morning,” Terrie said, “she woke me up. She said she was having trouble breathing.” Terrie called 911. In the emergency room, Brittany repeatedly said she couldn’t breathe. Terrie screamed for help. According to Terrie, the nurse who came over suggested Brittany was having an anxiety attack. Terrie recalled saying, “Lady, her lips are turning blue.” Brittany stopped breathing and died.

Brittany’s cause of death is listed as cardiopulmonary arrest (CPA), which is when breathing and heart functions suddenly stop. CPA is not a heart attack, though it can be caused by one. Terrie still doesn’t understand why, exactly, her daughter is dead.

“I tried so hard to be there for her and not enable her, to let her know that I loved her and was always going to love her,” Terrie said. Brittany knew she was loved: that knowledge brings Terrie some peace. “While addiction wreaked havoc in her life, it didn’t affect that. She was somebody to us.” 

Ron JeschkeJanuary 17, 1985–November 15, 2022

“[I]t doesn’t really matter to us what the cause of death was . . . the bottom line is Ron’s gone,” said Randy Jeschke. Credit: Lloyd DeGrane

“Are you from Tennessee?” Ron asked me the first time I met him at the tent he shared with his girlfriend Kim on Lower Wacker. “Nope,” I replied. Ron grinned and stretched, lanky as cars roared by. “Well, you’re the only ten I see,” he said. I rolled my eyes, but Kim, who was folding clothes, laughed. Then, I was annoyed that he’d make such a cheesy pass in front of his girlfriend. Now, when I recount this memory on the phone with Kim, I see it as a moment of Ron feeling happy and good, feeling himself enough to goof off.

Ron and Kim knew each other as teenagers. After years of back-and-forth crushes and bad timing, they started dating in 2016. “One thing I loved about him was his confidence,” Kim told me. “I mean, this man could wear white shorts with blue and red stripes, Jordans that are black, purple, and orange, a New Kids On the Block shirt, a flower pashmina, and an old baseball cap, and make it look good.”

Ron came up with funny words and sing-song phrases. “He was a fun and caring uncle to my daughter,” his sister Randi wrote to me. Before he was on Lower Wacker, Ron worked for years as a waiter and made friends with the seniors who came in for their Sunday brunch. In good times, Ron and his mother would go on Dunkin’ Donuts runs together. When they first came out to the Loop, Ron had been unhoused before, but Kim had never stayed outside, and she was terrified. Ron made her feel safe. At night, they cuddled, and he held her hand.

The Ron I knew was also difficult. Despair could make him harsh and bitter. He could be honest to the point of rudeness, Kim said, but it wasn’t his intention. “You wanted to be so mad at him for stuff he’d done in the past, but you can’t stay mad at him.” He was tall, with brown eyes and reddish-brown hair. He was skinny when I met him, and got skinnier. One day this summer on a visit to the camp, I couldn’t get him to wake up. He and Kim had broken up, and she was staying elsewhere. I checked his breathing (regular), his color (pale but warm, no blue), and his position (crumpled on his side). I sat for a minute on an overturned milk crate, and then left rigs (sterile needles), more Narcan, and candy just outside the lip of his tent.

“Was he sick?” Ron’s dad Randy asked me on the phone after he died. I wasn’t sure, though I’d heard something on the street about a blood infection. “Still using?” He was. “I guess they did a toxicology screen, but it doesn’t really matter to us what the cause of death was. We’d like to know, but the bottom line is Ron’s gone.” 

Randy was clear to tell me that his family was devastated, and Ron’s mother in particular was suffering in her grief, but they had been waiting for the call telling them Ron was dead for a long time. When he died at age 37, Ron had been addicted to opioids for 15 years. “I’ve got a lot of anger myself about it,” he said. “I listened to Ron repeat the 12 steps forwards and backwards. He held meetings. When he was on methadone, he spoke very openly about his trials and tribulations.”  

Addiction regularly shatters families, but there was a period where Ron lived with his sister and his niece and worked with his dad. Ron told Randy about his former hustles, how he survived at the train station, how he taught others new to sleeping outside the necessary scams to survive. And then there was another relapse. “One day, he was standing in front of me, and I’m looking at him like, ‘What’s going on with you?’ And he just said, ‘It’s time for me to go.’ The look on his face—I think he looked embarrassed.”

Randy looked for him at Union Station. He looked for him at the Bean, where Ron hustled key chains he lifted from Walgreens. He looked for him in Garfield Park, one of the spots where Ron bought his drugs. Eventually, he and Ron reconnected, and Randy would come downtown once a month to meet Kim and Ron for lunch.

“People ask me questions, and I don’t hesitate to tell them he was a heroin addict,” said Randy. “He’s been fighting that battle for a long time. We should be factual, say it the way it is.”

It takes courage to be honest about the circumstances in which a loved one lived and died, especially when the circumstances are as stigmatized as drug use, homelessness, and addiction. Courage, and probably not a little resignation, born from years of trying to save a life and solve a public health problem largely alone. As of this printing, Ron’s cause of death is still unknown. 

Sheila Hope HecksJune 29, 1971– December 2, 2022

“Hope kept herself to herself; everyone knew one thing about her, but no one knew the whole.” Credit: Lloyd DeGrane

Lloyd called her The Wanderer. A young veteran I first met when he was reading Chairman Mao For Kids on a crate outside of Ron’s tent knew her as Sheila. “Have you seen Carlos?” asked a nurse practitioner from the back of The Night Ministry’s street medicine van, his good-natured face slightly crinkled with concern. “We have like six months of his mail.” 

“Hope,” said Hope, when I asked her, once again, to confirm her name.

Hope kept herself to herself; everyone knew one thing about her, but no one knew the whole. Alternately, she introduced herself to me as a bisexual man who goes by he or she, a gay man who uses she/her pronouns, a trans woman, and a self-described former “female impersonator” who used to take hormones until they made her sick. 

Each time Hope told me who she was, that’s who I knew her to be. Like Lower Wacker, Hope was adaptable, mercurial, and sometimes lonely in the dark. She liked purple eyeshadow and nail polish; she followed rumors around the love life of Mayor Lori Lightfoot with interest. Hope detested the illicit drag racers who crashed into the concrete buttress by her head on Saturday nights just as much as she detested Jeff Bezos. As many questions as I had for her, Hope had for me. “How much you spend on cat food? Do your cat eat a lot? What color is he? Is he very friendly? You got cable? You never watch My Cat From Hell? Y’all don’t watch too much TV. How do you like your husband? Ooo, he’s not your husband yet? Well, when will he be? Y’all thinking about getting a big house pretty soon? You have a good job? Can you afford your rent? Is there a lot of crime over there? Mixed neighborhood? Lotta Black folks over there? Puerto Ricans? Lotta good restaurants? Walmarts? Walgreens? You know how to get out of a lockhold? It’s good to know self-defense. Are you safe down here?”

“Are YOU safe down here?” I ask her. Hope says yeah, she’s safe. She shows me her pepper spray, and a long, flat board tucked into her cart. No one has come after her because she hasn’t given them the chance. “I always be looking behind me!”

She liked a spot for everything and lived tidily. Before Hope headed out for the day, she covered her bed—a mattress on some blankets on concrete softened over the years by exhaust dust, pigeon feces, and the detritus that drifts down when the hotels above the camp open their vents for cleaning on Sundays—with a tarp, carefully tucking its corners under her mattress so no rodent could worry its way into her sheets. Once, she was bitten by a rat and had to get five shots in the soft part of her arm. She lived at the same camp Ron did. It was Hope who lived here first, ten years ago, when she lived alone on this bank of concrete, intended for use as a loading dock and shaped like a broken kite. 

Hope didn’t like drugs, but she did like light beer, white wine, and cute cocktails if she could get them. She loved romance novels. Like most of the others, she spent years on and off various housing lists. She was born in Jamaica and moved to Chicago from New York City. Sometimes, if she was feeling social, Hope would push her cart and visit with a couple trans women she knew who stayed further down Lower Wacker, or drink beers with Stephen, a white man who sleeps on a mattress under Lower Wacker but only a few yards away from the Riverwalk and its bustling monetary flow. I wish I knew what they talked about: Hope, who spoke fast and low and ended all of her sentences with “you know?” and Stephen, who is almost entirely deaf, although sometimes he tells me he hears my voice, very clearly, calling his name. 

I tried tracking down Hope’s next of kin but was unsuccessful. She told me that she had a wife who died of breast cancer and an ex-husband. With her wife, she parented five kids, or four, depending on the day I asked. In Hope’s understanding of her life, time bent and looped. At different times in her life, she worked as a makeup artist, for a phone company, and at Walmart. At one point, her son Brian lived with her on Lower Wacker. “He was my baby son,” she told me. Alternately, she said he died from an air bubble in a needle, he froze to death, and he died because someone “gave him some bad drugs.” However it happened, when it happened, Hope, the Wanderer, was out wandering. It was around New Year’s Eve. For some time, the rest of the camp rustling and hustling around him, Brian lay unmoving underneath his covers. The others thought he’d just nodded off and needed some time to rest. When Hope came back, she slapped his covers, called his name. “I don’t blame [the others at the camp] anymore,” Hope told me. Hope watched while someone from the city arrived and put him in a body bag.

“He was my best friend,” Hope said. “We actually got along very good. We stuck together.” It was his belongings she pushed in her cart as she walked. 

After years of homelessness, Hope had her apartment for almost exactly a year. That’s where she died, the morning I sat down to start writing these obituaries. The cause of death was hypertensive heart disease and diabetes, two diseases that, with access to real care in a functioning country, do not have to be terminal. I never did get over to see her, but I’ve no doubt she kept that place cute. Even though she had her apartment, I still saw Hope downtown from time to time, pushing her cart. “I got to get my mind right,” she’d tell us. “I’m walking to clear my mind.” The last time Lloyd and I saw her was in November, walking down Lower Wacker. She told us she liked her place. We told her we’d try to visit soon.

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