southtownstar
INCONSISTENT 
Weather Updates

Vickroy: I-55 viaducts no place like home

Upcoming
programs

On April 20, Calvary Church will present Brian Welch, lead guitarist of Korn and recovering meth addict. In May, the church will present a seminar, “How to Drug-Proof Your Children.”

The church is at 16100 S. 104th Ave., Orland Park; (708) 966-4410; www.calvaryop.org/

Want to help?

The Rev. Ron Ovitt said the public can help by dropping off coats and warm clothing, individual bags of snacks or bags of hygiene products. The church also operates a food pantry.

Article Extras
Story Image

Updated: March 18, 2013 6:37AM



JoAnn was having a bad day.

On top of the usual — cold, hunger, the absence of a future — she had been stolen from.

“People keep taking my stuff,” she says. “My clothes, my meds, my food. I went to the food pantry and they took it all.”

Living here, on a concrete ledge near the top of a viaduct under the Stevenson Expressway, even a person who seemingly has nothing can still have much to lose.

Homelessness at any time is sad, but on a cold winter night, in the shadows cast by Bridgeport’s overpasses, it seems unforgiveable.

Tucked beneath tattered blankets, an old sofa cushion for a pillow, JoAnn suddenly sits up, adjusts her knit blue hat, smiles and says everything will be all right, she’s not completely hopeless.

“I just need to get my leg fixed, then maybe they’ll let me stay in the shelter,” she says.

She broke her ankle and hurt her leg in a recent fall — the injuries the latest in a lifetime of hurts and injustices that left her and her 30-year-old son, James, living on the streets.

“I used to live in an apartment in Lockport,” she says. “It was a real nice place.”

Now her home is atop this steep concrete ramp, just off Archer Avenue near Chinatown. Every 10 or 15 minutes, the el rattles past, reminding her that if she could walk, she’d have the option of climbing the stairs up to the CTA and riding the warm train all night.

“Nobody will take you in a wheelchair,” she says, pointing to the metal chair braked against her concrete bed.

So she had James push her up to the ledge, where she keeps her stuff — a plastic soda bottle, a pack of cigarettes, shoes, some trinkets, a Bible — all lined up on the metal beams holding up the highway.

JoAnn is not the only one to lay claim to a slab of concrete. There’s Dave and Jennifer, huddling together in a single stall. And further east sit other shadowy figures, bundled against the weather and whatever demons keep them living on the edge of the night.

On this night, their solitude is disrupted by a band of urban missionaries — members of Calvary Church in Orland Park, people who have homes and nice clothes and decent jobs but who choose to spend their Saturday nights reaching out to those who have next to nothing.

They’d like to befriend JoAnn and the others. They’d like to give them some food, a warm coat and invite them to consider a different way of living.

JoAnn embraces the outreach. She’ll laugh and talk and smoke a cigarette with these people. She’ll take the hot coffee and the bag of warm clothes. But she’s not coming with them. She’s not ready.

She suddenly recognizes a man in a nice Columbia jacket.

“Hey, I remember you,” she says, pointing her cigarette at Mike Burton. She places him at a nearby taco joint.

“That was a long time ago. How ya doin’?” she asks. “You look good.”

Whole new world

On the bitter cold morning when Burton was saved, both literally and figuratively, he awoke shirtless and shoeless, sporting two black eyes and a couple of cracked ribs.

It was New Year’s Day 2009 and, after 20-some years on the streets, drinking whatever booze he could get his hands on, doing whatever drugs he could find, he had finally hit bottom.

“I wasn’t sure what had happened the night before. Did I get in a fight? Was I robbed?” Burton says with a shrug. “Some street people like to hit you in the head with a brick while you’re sleeping and then take your stuff. I knew a guy who was killed that way.”

What he knows for sure is that he weighed 105 pounds, had no teeth and “was a total mess.”

About the only thing he did have was a minute left on his go-phone. He called a friend, and his journey toward sobriety, toward productivity, toward hope had begun.

His friend brought him clothes and food and then got him into a treatment center. When he finished the standard 30 days there, the friend brought him to the Rev. Ron Ovitt, pastor and head of New Hope, a recovery fellowship at Calvary Church.

Ovitt got him into Sober House, in Tinley Park. It was a safe haven where he could continue to recover. He continues to work with Ovitt.

Long road to recovery

“A lot of people think you can treat addiction with a 30-day program,” Ovitt says. “It takes a lot longer, sometimes five years.”

Ovitt’s recovery program focuses on helping addicts, and really anyone suffering from an emotional trauma that makes it difficult or impossible for them to assimilate in society.

“It’s our emotional learning that drags us into addiction, that lands us in the streets,” he says. “The root of addiction is in trauma, and that’s mostly likely to occur in childhood.”

He defines “trauma” as any event that triggers feelings of anxiety, depression or insecurity. Once a person learns that alcohol or drugs help them “deal with” those emotions, they put themselves on the path to self-medicating every time those emotions arise. That, he said, leads to addiction, which can lead to homelessness.

Ovitt said there are three stages of homelessness: 1) moving in with family or friends, 2) wearing out your welcome and then living in your car, and finally, 3) surviving on the streets.

Ovitt said 30 percent of those living in the streets have a dual diagnosis, often mental illness and addiction. At the very least, they have a state of mind that needs to be changed.

He works with other organizations, including MorningStar Mission, Women’s Breakthrough, Tabitha House and Urban Ministries, to match each homeless person who wants help with the kind of help he or she needs.

“Almost everyone coming off the streets needs some kind of place for transition,” he says. In addition, some need medical attention, some dental, almost all need job training and retention skills.

Among the most challenging obstacles to overcome is addiction.

Ovitt has developed his own process, which he calls “emotional relearning.” He helps participants untangle their emotions, recognize the triggers and then attach different memories or feelings to those experiences. He began studying the process in 2008 and has several success stories to prove it works.

There’s Tammy, who was found sleeping in the church parking lot. They brought her in, got her into treatment and today she is married and working as a certified nursing assistant.

There’s Brian, who was living in an abandoned building on 95th Street. He entered the program, as did his estranged wife, who also had been living on the streets. They now are drug-free, and Ovitt recently remarried them.

Before Ovitt can help people, though, he has to find them. Hence the outings to the viaducts on Chicago’s South Side.

He rotates the Saturday night outings among the viaducts, the CTA stop at 95th Street and the Dan Ryan Expressway, and Daybreak Shelter in Joliet.

Ovitt drives the church bus filled with parishioners and supplies. Typically, 30 to 35 people accompany him.

Bonnie Gorgievski, of Mokena, and Don Weber and Faith Ondras, both of Orland Park, are among this night’s ministry participants. So are the Kostelyk family, of Hinsdale.

Jason and Dee Kostelyk brought their 10-year-old son Calvin, 13-year-old daughter Jada, and nieces Esme Gonzalez, 13, and Vanessa Gonzalez, 15.

“This shows them that no one’s better than anyone else. We’re all capable of ending up homeless,” Jason Kostelyk says. “It’s our job to give and help in any way we can.”

“I couldn’t imagine sleeping out here,” Calvin says, looking up at the pockets of homesteading along the upper rim of the viaducts.

The church members drop off coats, food and bags of hygiene products. They chat for awhile with their new friends and, before leaving, gather ’round for a prayer and a verse of “Amazing Grace.”

They promise to return.

A present and a future

A regular among the outreach participants these days is Burton.

“It’s important for me to give testimony, to share my story,” Burton says. “It’s important for me to give others hope.”

Today, Burton, 48, works two jobs, as a full-time mechanic and part time at the Tinley Park Jewel-Osco.

He has an apartment and a car, as well as a hard-earned license to drive that vehicle.

More important, he has a future, he has hope.

“This is more than I’ve ever had,” he says.

Burton grew up in Bridgeport. He took his first drink at 14. His mother was an alcoholic; he never knew his father. Though his stepfather tried his best to raise him to be a productive member of society, Burton said once he started hitting the bottle, he couldn’t stop. Beer led to hard liquor, hard liquor to drugs.

“What was my drink of choice? It was ‘What do you got?’ ” he says. “I got drunk or high every day. Some days, I would pray that I would fall asleep and just die, to end it.”

To get money for his habit, he stole, he hustled, he took his Link card to certain stores where he knew they’d give him 50 cents on the dollar, cash.

“I was a mess, a total mess,” he says. “I used to eat out of Dumpsters.”

In the four years he’s been sober, off the streets and in Ovitt’s treatment program, he’s learned why booze became his crutch.

“I always wanted to be a part of something, you know,” he says. “I never felt like I belonged anywhere.”

He had a sister who was murdered when she was just 18.

“I was never really close to her, though,” he says. “I wish I had been close to my mom. I wish my mom was here today so I could hug her. I don’t have any other family.”

But he does have the church.

“People at Calvary took me in, trusted me. They didn’t judge me,” he says. “They invite me into their homes; sometimes they take me on vacation with them. Now I belong somewhere.”

Maintaining his new life is hard work, he said. He must stay focused and, but for the church-led excursions into the city to look for others in need of help, he knows he must stay out of Chicago.

“I have bad memories of Chicago. It makes me nervous to be back here,” he says, looking beyond the concrete girders to the lives being played out in the shadows.

“I used to live here,” he says. “I know I am one drink away from being drunk, from driving drunk, from going to prison, from losing everything. I am one drink away from being back here.”

On the drive back to Orland Park, Ovitt explains that this is the kind of outreach work that churches need to do more of.

“Churches are capable of helping these people,” he says. “Churches started hospitals and hostels and social service programs. They need to get back into that kind of work.”

He wants to bring his program to the masses. He also wants to help church officials learn how to work in unison with social service organizations, with the police and with hospitals to offer long-term care and treatment programs.

There are a lot of programs out there, he said.

“If we work together, we can make a difference,” he says.

As the church members debark and say their good nights, Ovitt says, “This has been educational and I hope meaningful. This is the kind of stuff you won’t forget.

“This is not easy work,” he says. “But we can’t give up.”



© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit www.suntimesreprints.com. To order a reprint of this article, click here.