The man who came in from the cold: a story of one Chicago man’s redemption

‘Sometimes, you have to hit rock bottom before you can pull yourself out,’ says Eugene Burnett, who spent years getting drunk on the street before he finally sought help.

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Eugene Burnett spent many years hanging out and drinking in front of this liquor store on Madison Street.

Eugene Burnett spent many years hanging out and drinking in front of this liquor store on Madison Street.

Mark Brown / Sun-Times

Eugene Burnett hit rock bottom in the winter of 2018.

He’d been headed in that direction a long time. 

Burnett’s drinking already had cost him several jobs, cost him relationships with his family, cost him his self-respect, at one point even cost him his freedom, landing him in jail.

But that winter it also cost him the last roof over his head. It was only then, faced with homelessness in the frigid cold of February as his health deteriorated, that Eugene Burnett began his comeback.

“Sometimes, you have to hit rock bottom before you can pull yourself out,” Burnett told me.

This is a story of one man’s redemption, his salvation, if you will.

We met at a going away party for two top officials from the Salvation Army.

Nancy Powers, the now former director of the Salvation Army Freedom Center, pointed him out, telling me only that he had a good story. I introduced myself and asked him to call if he was interested in telling it. I didn’t even know his name.

He sounded wary when he called but agreed to meet.

Now 49 and more than three years sober, Burnett grew up in Cabrini Green, the youngest of five children.

By February 2018, Burnett was well known to the street outreach workers of the Salvation Army, having been a regular customer for many years of the charity organization’s food truck.

The truck makes stops along Madison Street to deliver hot soup and build relationships with people who might need the agency’s services.

Burnett, known to his friends as Jerome, was part of a group of men who hung out and drank each day outside a liquor store at Madison and Whipple.

What did he drink? 

“Anything,” Burnett said. “I never was the type to drink one beer and call it a day. I had to drink the whole day.”

Just how long he’d been on the streets is hard to say, those sorts of details lost in an alcoholic’s haze. But more than 10 years, at least, maybe many more — long enough to rack up more than $20,000 in tickets and fines for public drinking that he’s still trying to repay.

All that time, Salvation Army workers kept trying to coax Burnett into a treatment program. But he resisted. He wasn’t ready.

Still, Burnett stood out to them because of his gentlemanly nature. He’d make sure there were no fights among the people waiting for their soup. And he helped the women get to the front of the line.

How many of those years Burnett was homeless, that’s hard to say, too. The first time we spoke, he said he’d only been truly homeless about a month. The next time, he acknowledged it might have been closer to two years.

For many years of his adult life, Burnett stayed at his mother’s home on the West Side. She often threatened to kick him out because of the drinking, but she never had the heart to do it.

Then,his mother moved and turned over the house to Burnett’s niece, who had her own young family. The niece wasn’t as willing to put up with his behavior when he was drunk. She threw him out.

“I was belligerent,” Burnett said. “Acted crazy, talked a lot of crazy stuff, didn’t remember what I said. After a while, anyone gets tired of it.”

Burnett slept many nights in the waiting room at Mount Sinai Hospital. Other nights, he spent riding the CTA or sleeping on the floor of a police station. 

He said he never slept outdoors on the street, though some nights — before he got kicked out altogether from the niece’s home — he would just curl up outside on her front porch.

Some people attribute their problem drinking to tragic life events. Burnett doesn’t really believe in that.

“I pretty much drank because I liked drinking,” he said. “I didn’t have a reason.”

Burnett said he would pray to God to help him quit. But he hated running into his big brother, who often delivered the same message.

“He’d always say, ‘When you going to quit? When you going to do this? When you going to do that?’ ”

But when he ran into his brother in February 2018, Burnett told him he was thinking of making a change. This time, he meant it.

But first he bummed $20 off him and used it to get drunk.

Three days later, Burnett faked getting sick on the street in hopes of luring an ambulance. The paramedics told him there wasn’t anything wrong with him other than being drunk. But he begged them to take him to a hospital.

At the hospital, they said they couldn’t do anything for him, either. But he asked a friendly nurse for help, and she sent him to Chicago Lakeshore Hospital, a rehab facility in Uptown.

Chicago Lakeshore kept him a week. When it came time to discharge him, Burnett agreed to go into the Salvation Army treatment program.

Eugene Burnett has been sober for more than three years after checking into a treatment program at the Salvation Army Freedom Center.

Eugene Burnett has been sober for more than three years after checking into a treatment program at the Salvation Army Freedom Center.

Mark Brown / Sun-Times

The woman from the Salvation Army who came to take him to Freedom Center recognized him immediately.

“She said, ‘Oh, my God. I don’t believe this,’ ” he recalled.

Others reacted similarly upon his arrival.

“Everybody was so happy to see me,” Burnett said. “That made me feel good.”

From his first day, Burnett diligently worked the program to recovery, Powers said. As he did, the Salvation Army team marveled as he regained his mental sharpness, then his sense of humor.

After a while, they offered him a job in the agency’s community center, where he worked with kids attending an afterschool program. He excelled at that, Powers said.

Soon, Burnett was moving into his own apartment and getting married. Recently, he found another, better paying job. His mother now sleeps better at night, he said, knowing he’s not out there on the street.

By the way, that big brother who nagged him happens to be Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th), which has no real bearing on this story, but I don’t want anyone thinking I withheld the information.

Eugene Burnett told me he keeps a collection of temporary photo ID cards from when he was drinking.

“Every time I feel a certain kind of way, I just look at that picture,” he said.

The “before” photos remind him how far he has come.

Burnett’s story is a good reminder that there’s nobody who is so far gone that they can’t find their way back with the right help.

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