Trying for a miracle: Chicago cop reaches out to help boy, father down on their luck on the West Side
Sgt. Rhianna Hubbard found the 11-year-old pumping gas for others for change, then helped arrange an apartment and a job for his dad. But happy endings are hard to come by in real life.
The boy wasn’t wearing gloves, he reeked of gasoline, and his face was crusted with dirt.
“He was crying. As his tears rolled down, it would make a clean path,” Chicago Police Sgt. Rhianna Hubbard recalls.
That was three weeks ago. The snow had finally stopped, followed then by punishing cold.
That day, Hubbard did something cops rarely do — for their own safety: She got in the back seat of her squad car behind “the cage,” opened the door and beckoned the boy to come in from the cold.
He hesitated. She told him: You’re not in any trouble. So he got in.
Maybe it was Hubbard’s patience that won his trust. Or her voice — a voice that, until last year, would guide the families of police officers killed in the line of duty through the debris of shattered lives.
Hubbard is the mother of 3-year-old twin boys and a 17-year-old daughter. Since last May, she has been assigned to the 15th Police District on the West Side, an area where discarded grocery bags billow against cyclone fences, signs zip-tied to lampposts offer to buy houses in “any condition” for cash, and guys hawk socks and bottled water from plastic tubs on the sidewalk.
Hubbard grew up on the West Side, though a little farther east.
“We were poor, but we had dignity, and we worked hard, and we looked out for each other,” she says.
She’s seen addiction hollow out parts of the area.
“It pretty much destroyed the community from the inside out,” she says.
Hubbard no longer lives on the West Side, but she returns every day, in charge of a program her district is testing to strengthen ties between cops and communities they serve. Rather than hand out a ticket, say, an officer might hand out her cellphone number and encourage the person she could have arrested to call if he needs help finding shelter, a meal, a job.
In 14 years as a cop, she’s wedged herself between screaming couples, calmed the injured at crashes and kept the curious back from corpses on the street.
In all of those years, though, she says she’s never heard a story quite like that of the boy who showed up in mid-February at the gas station at Madison and Cicero.
Desperate for food, he was pumping gas for people in the subzero chill for a little cash.
“Heartbreaking,” she says.
Syed Aitezaz, co-owner of the gas station, says he’d give the kid chips or other snacks.
“I felt pretty bad for him,” Aitezaz says. “There are other panhandlers here, but he was different. He was not harassing people.”
Bessie Williams, who works at the gas station, told him he couldn’t be there, that he should be in school.
“I’m a mama,” Williams says. “I didn’t want nobody to hurt him.”
In late February, a security guard patrolling the gas station called the police about the boy. When the cops asked about his parents, he reluctantly led them to an apartment building a couple of blocks away and told them that’s where he lived with his father.
Hubbard pulled up in her squad car. The boy’s father wasn’t there.
She says the kid “was wearing a large winter vest from maybe someone in the neighborhood who had given it to him. His face was really dirty, and his hands were extremely dirty.”
As soon as he saw Hubbard, he started yelling: “Black lady, black lady — listen to me, please come help me!”
Then, he shouted: “There’s no probable cause!”
That’s when Hubbard coaxed him into her squad car.
Slowly, his story emerged: He was 11, had no mother, had spilled gas on his hands trying to pump it. If his dad wasn’t in the apartment, he said, he knew where to find him.
The boy led police to a nearby alley behind a row of neglected two-flats. At the back of one, a second-floor door opened onto nothing. The boy pointed to a boarded-up garage with a gaping hole in the roof. The yard looked like the neighborhood dump.
A man with the stuffing poking from the arms of his coat came out.He was filthy just like his son.
“The minute his dad emerged, the boy jumped onto my lap and started screaming out the window, telling him to get him out of there,” Hubbard says. “He was afraid we were taking him away.”
She says that’s what she won’t forget: the boy’s devotion to his dad.
At first, the father denied living in the garage.
“Because obviously he didn’t want to lose his son,” Hubbard says.
The officers persuaded him to come to the police station. They promised to try to find him and his son a place to stay.
There was something Hubbard didn’t say out loud.
“I was extremely fearful that we would have to separate the two of them,” she says. “I was literally praying because I know how limited the resources are for fathers and children. It’s not one of those situations you often get.”
She called another officer, Jose Sanchez, who grew up in Humboldt Park.
“Back in the days when I grew up, it wasn’t panhandling,” Sanchez says. “We used to call it hustling a little money to go to the shows.”
He knew someone who could help. He made a call to a building owner he says told him, “without hesitation, ‘I got a place for him.’”
He wouldn’t give the owner’s name but says of his help: “He does it from the kindness of his heart.”
So the boy and his father had a place now to live. The building owner gave the father a job, too — cleaning up one of his other apartment buildings.
“I tried to get help in other places, other resources, and the police came through faster than anyone else has,” the father says, talking briefly on the phone about what happened. “They helped me out immediately.”
He says he liked the apartment, saying it has a “nice view” of a school.
In a storybook, maybe a happy ending would follow. But Hubbard says this story isn’t close to over yet. The boy’s been back out panhandling again.
“It’s not like a quick fix,” Hubbard says. “It’s just going to take some time.”
On March 6, the father was on the sidewalk outside the apartment building. He’d just hauled a huge suitcase and a wire laundry cart packed with shoes out of the apartment and was smoking a cigarette.
He’d lost his new job.
“He kicked me out of here, too,” he says.
The man had expected too much of him, according to the father, who agreed to speak only if he were identified by just his middle name, Jamahal.
The police say he got kicked out because he brought too much junk — including some old strollers — into the apartment and a cat, too, which wasn’t allowed.
The same day Jamahal got the boot, his son, whose name is David, was out on the sidewalk, fiddling with a piece of wire. He looked up when visitors approached, eyeing them carefully. His hair was close-cropped, his face now clean. He is small for his age, could pass for 8 or 9.
“We’ve never been apart — ever, ever,” Jamahal says of his son. “I’ve had him completely to myself since he was 10 months old.”
He didn’t want to talk about the boy’s mother. He says he was born in Chicago but had been living till recently in Florida, selling cars.
But he says he lost that job and came home to Chicago, for awhile driving for Uber, before his engine “blew.”
Jamahal says that, to get by, he sells shoes people have thrown away or given to him.
His son, asked about begging for change during and after the snowstorm, says it wasn’t so bad.
“I had jackets on,” David says. “My hands don’t get cold.”
People were nice to him at the gas station, he says. One man even gave him a $100 bill.
He wants to be a rapper when he grows up or, if that doesn’t work out, a shoe salesman.
Jamahal says his son hadn’t been in school lately, that he’d been looking into that when they got kicked out of the apartment.
Hubbard worries about that and says she’s contacted the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services because “maybe they need a little more hands-on help to guide them.”
She says a part of her wishes she could just take David home, keep him safe, give him a loving environment, “but I also have to be realistic.”
She figures Jamahal is battling some demons and says she’s not one to judge, that she sees something real between father and son.
“When I saw how their bond is, I knew there had to be some love there,” she says. “Obviously, we want what’s best for the kid, so he can have a fighting chance out there.”