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Dr. Ralph Ryan, 69, a retired cardiologist who lives in Elmhurst, volunteers with the Night Ministry and provides free health care at the CTA’s Blue Line Forest Park station, Wednesday night, Feb. 23, 2021. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
Dr. Ralph Ryan, 69, a retired cardiologist who lives in Elmhurst, volunteers with the Night Ministry and was providing free health care at the CTA’s Blue Line Forest Park station Wednesday night.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

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Homeless L riders get Night Ministry care

Chicago’s last defense for the destitute runs two outreach centers in CTA ‘L’ terminals.

This is the end of the line, literally. The CTA Blue Line terminates at Forest Park, where L trains arrive every 15 minutes, linger briefly, then begin their 26.9 mile return journey east to downtown then northwest to O’Hare.

This is also the end of the line, figuratively, for Chicagoans whose combination of mental illness, bad luck, bad life choices and inability to manage in a bad, COVID-ravaged economy forces them to ride the trains tonight, seeking a warm, dry refuge on this 30 degree night at the end of February.

“It’s been rough,” says Ladislao Vasquez, shortly after 9 p.m. He worked construction for 20 years, he says, but lost an eye after being shot. “Times are hard.”

He is here because on Mondays and Wednesdays from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. the Night Ministry, the final strands of Chicago’s frayed social service net, runs a sort of field hospital/free commissary/clinic for the homeless, offering services of a social worker, piles of supplies—socks, hats, underwear, combs — paper bags of snacks, pallets of water and a nurse or, tonight, a doctor.

“I’m setting up my office,” says Dr. Ralph Ryan, a retired cardiologist, unfolding a gray screen by a staircase in the station’s entry, to offer a shred of privacy to homeless patients as they explain their afflictions and addictions to him.

What prompts a 69-year-old physician to leave the relative paradise of Elmhurst to treat homeless people for free six nights a month? The answer is deceptively simple.

“I enjoy serving the underserved,” says Ryan, who has been doing this four years. “I started on the bus” — the rolling medical clinic bus that the Night Ministry sends into low-income areas of the city — “then gravitated to street medicine.”

A line of people waiting to meet with workers from the Night Ministry who were provide\ing free health care and outreach services at the CTA’s Blue Line Forest Park station, Wednesday night, Feb. 23, 2021.
Night Ministry workers were providing free health care and outreach services at the CTA’s Blue Line Forest Park station Wednesday night, where the line of people in need quickly grew to more than a dozen.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The Night Ministry also dispatches doctors with backpacks into places that a bus can’t go, like the deepest subterranean ramps branching off Lower Wacker Drive and tent encampments under expressways.

“They are at the end of the rope,” Ryan says. “That’s where I wanted to be. Because that’s where we’re needed.”

The Night Ministry’s CTA outreach began in June; they do the same at the Red Line’s 95th Street terminal. Even as staffers set up, a long line forms, eventually stretching to about 20 people. Ryan estimates they see 100 to 150 people a night. Every time a train arrives, security guard Troy Fulcher goes upstairs and walks through the train, telling people the Night Ministry is downstairs.

“Make sure they’re breathing,” Ryan reminds him.

“Sir, sir,” Fulcher says, to an inert form. “You all right? The Night Ministry is downstairs. Do you want to go downstairs?”

Security guard Troy Fulcher checks on an ‘L’ rider at the Blue Line Forest Park station, where the Night Ministry was providing free health care and other outreach services Wednesday night.
Security guard Troy Fulcher checks on an ‘L’ rider at the Blue Line Forest Park station, where the Night Ministry was providing free health care and other outreach services Wednesday night.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Readers irked to find themselves sharing an L car with a homeless person or three might wonder why the CTA doesn’t throw them off the trains instead of helping them be more comfortable.

“The CTA can’t legally remove individuals who appear to be homeless,” says CTA spokesman Brian Steele, referring to the Illinois Bill of Rights for the Homeless Act of 2013.

Right. But the CTA doesn’t have to allow the Night Ministry to throw them a party two nights at week either.

“Homelessness is a much larger social issue, not particular to the CTA,” Steele says. “It’s something we have to address. One way we do is have partnerships, through the city of Chicago, with a number of social service agencies: Thresholds, Catholic Charities, Featherfist.”

The idea is not to support the homeless as they live on the trains but to get them off and rebuilding their lives, eventually.

“The goal of those services is working to get those individuals assistance to address homeless problems,” Steele says. “ We see these programs as having the potential of helping us address the issue on a larger and more permanent scale, versus simply removing people from the system.”

CTA rail ridership took a hit in 2020, down 65% from the year before. Is homelessness on the L up?

“Is this year different than previous years? I don’t know that we’ve seen any increase,” Steele says. “I can tell you that issues of homelessness are almost always seasons. They start to uptick in November and December and are higher during the winter months.”

Kenneth Purnell, a chef at the Columbus Manor Residential Care Home on the West Side, has hot chicken noodle soup and kind words for homeless ‘L’ riders using the Night Ministry ‘s free health care and outreach services on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2021.
Kenneth Purnell, a chef at the Columbus Manor Residential Care Home on the West Side, has hot chicken noodle soup and kind words for homeless ‘L’ riders using the Night Ministry ‘s free health care and outreach services on Wednesday night.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The Night Ministry coordinates with volunteers to bring food to their outreach; often a church group will show up with 100 sandwiches to meet their medical bus at a particular stop. Tonight, Kenneth Purnell, a chef at Columbus Manor Residential Care Home on the West Side, has brought an urn of hot chicken soup, a boom box playing gospel songs and a heart full of love.

“God bless you,” he says to those reaching out for a styrofoam bowl of soup.

“I come out to give back,” explains Purnell, who often visits homeless encampments with food. “I’m a Christian.”

Ryan, wearing latex gloves, holds the foot of a homeless man who had them frostbitten the week before.

“Make sure your feet stay dry,” he advises. By night’s end, he’ll do everything from hand out masks to those waiting in line to counseling a heroin addict trying to kick his habit.

As with any gathering of the homeless, all is not placid. Most wait patiently, but not all. Some go directly to the Night Ministry workers demanding attention. A woman wrapped in a red and white blanket seems to feel she was promised a cane and runs from place to place, angrily insisting it be given to her now.

“It’s a tough group,” Ryan says. “Food is a vehicle into their trust. Most come down because we’ll feed them. Medical care is ancillary to those who want to sit and talk, show me a wound, ask me to help them find primary care.

“The level of mental illness among the groups that ride the trains is high, and one of the biggest weaknesses of the whole medical system. Trying to get them connected. Trying to get them into care, make sure they’re warm for the night. This is a population we are not reaching.”

Well, not reaching generally, in places other than the CTA station at Forest Park last Wednesday night.

Kyanna Johnson, a public ally at the Night Ministry, hands a bag of food to a homeless person as the non-profit offers free health care and outreach services at the CTA’s Blue Line Forest Park station, Wednesday night, Feb. 23, 2021. | Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
While the line of people in need grows to more than a dozen, Kyanna Johnson, a public ally at the Night Ministry, hands a bag of food to a homeless person as the non-profit offers free health care and outreach services at the CTA’s Blue Line Forest Park station Wednesday night.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times
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