Henry Williams can tell you the exact moment of his rebirth. It was January 5th, 2014, the first night of the polar vortex that plunged Chicago into a lethal deep freeze. Henry was asleep in his usual spot outside the delivery door of a CVS pharmacy. The buzz of the heroin he had snorted was telling his brain he was toasty and warm, when in reality he was probably freezing to death.
All he had covering him were two thin sheets. He wore no gloves. When two Salvation Army workers tried to wake him, they got no response and called 911, believing he was dead.
The paramedics successfully roused Henry, who only remembers them saying: “Sir, we have some people here who are willing to take you to a warm place.”
“And I can remember extending my hand and saying, ‘Yes, sir. Yes, sir.’”
Extending his hand wasn’t part of the plan the 54 year-old had made for himself during eight years of living homeless on the streets of the Windy City. In that plan, he would live outdoors apart from society, do his drugs and die in the process.
But in that moment, Williams reached for something more—more from life, more from himself, more from the society he had chosen to shun and that shunned him.
DOCTORS THOUGHT HIM A GONER
I met Henry at the Salvation Army Harbor Light Center at Monroe and Ashland Streets, which he calls home. Except for a telltale mouth of missing and tangled teeth, it was hard to imagine this was the same man whom Captain Nancy Powers, Harbor Light corps officer, described bringing here that frigid winter night.
At the time, Williams was a fright by his own admission, with a “haystack” of unkempt hair atop his head and a “Rip Van Winkle beard.” He had lost about 70 pounds, dropping from his normal weight of 185 down to 115.
He needed help to walk, and by the next morning when the drug withdrawal kicked in, he became so ill he had to be taken to the hospital. The doctors would later tell him they thought he was gone.
But when I met him he looked strong, fit and well–groomed. Although emphasizing the addict’s mantra of taking life a day at a time, he also spoke of finishing his GED, finding a job and maybe going to college.
He confided that this was probably his longest stretch of sobriety. His addict father began injecting him with heroin when he was 11 years old for reasons Henry has quit trying to fathom so he can concentrate on forgiving him.
There were jobs, stints in jail and treatment programs. But this was the first time he ever told himself: “Whatever I have to do, I have to do. I’m not going back out on the streets.”
For many years, he said he would wake up in a daze on the sidewalks as Chicagoans bustled to work and think to himself: “Life is passing you by.” Now, there might still be an opportunity for him to make a contribution, “to do what normal people do,” as he puts it.
Williams saw the elements of a miracle in his story, the hand of divine intervention leading the Salvation Army workers to find him. Captain Powers said a wrong turn brought her and a co-worker to the spot where Williams was sleeping that night as they scoured lower Wacker Drive for homeless people in need of shelter. Henry’s shopping cart, overflowing with everything he owned, caught their eye. He said he normally kept the cart hidden at night so nothing would be stolen while he slept. But that night he left it out.
Later, as he clung to life at the hospital, Henry found himself trapped in a highlight reel with his life flashing in front of him —”the things I did wrong, the things I did right, faster and faster, until the light popped through.”
At the end of the light were the doctors. They asked him what happened. He said he didn’t know. He told the hospital staff that he had no family.
Williams said he believed God intervened that January night “not just to restore me but to get me to help other people.” He told of riding the Chicago Transit Authority to visit a doctor recently and running across one of his homeless acquaintances from the street.
“What you done?” the man demanded to know.
“I told him I gave up,” Henry said. He heard later the man had checked into rehab. Henry Williams had found his purpose in life.
IS THAT HENRY?
About a week after Easter, Dorothy Cosby, 29, of Richmond, Virginia, got out of bed around two a.m. with a sudden urge to Google the name of her long lost uncle — Henry Williams.
It wasn’t the first time she’d tried to track down a lead on the man she calls my “favorite uncle,” even trying unsuccessfully a few years ago to get help from Chicago police, but that night something told her to take another stab at it.
Up popped my column in the Chicago Sun Times with a photo of Henry, and Dorothy found herself looking into a face she hadn’t seen in more than ten years, the face of someone she had started to believe was dead.
She was so excited she got on the phone and woke her mother, Mary Cosby, to share news of the discovery. Dorothy read her the story aloud. Mary, Henry’s sister, said she was so excited afterward that she couldn’t sleep the rest of the night.
The next morning, Dorothy came to visit Mary and together they watched a Salvation Army video on the Internet, featuring Henry’s story. “He seemed more happy than I’ve seen him. I’ve never seen him smile that way,” Mary said.
Not ten minutes later, Mary was on the telephone speaking with her brother. And with that phone call, ten years of worrying, ten years of not knowing what had become of her little brother melted away.
“God bless you for putting this out here, because we would have never found him,” she told me.
If Mary is that grateful to me, imagine how grateful she is to the people of The Salvation Army, who actually saved her brother and brought him this far in his recovery. “I think it’s a blessing,” she said. “He could not be in a better place today.” She has stayed in touch regularly with Henry since she found him.
NEXT UP — HEALING PAST HURTS
Henry’s transformation took another big step forward when he returned to work.
Captain Powers, the Salvation Army officer who helped bring Williams in from the cold that January night, reports that the Army gave him a lead on a part-time job and the employer was “so pleased with his work that after three days they hired him full–time!” His sister said Williams “always loved working and taking care of himself.” She said that’s why she was surprised he fell so far into the drug life that he would be living on the street.
Mary confirmed her brother’s account that he had been the victim of abuse as a young child, although she told the story a little differently. She said she never thought of Williams as being homeless when he was still living in Virginia, even though he never had a place of his own. “He used to live with me. He used to live with his niece. He always lived with family,” she said.
Henry has learned a lot in eight months, including what it means to be clean and sober and to let go of old hurts. On, June 4, he was reunited with the family he had once denied.
“I’m pretty overwhelmed, but I’m good. This was meant to happen. This is the way life is supposed to be. I’m actually back on earth again,” he told me. With a tear dampening his cheek he expressed his thanks, with family gathered round in a room at the Harbor Light Center.
Henry’s sister Mary made the trip from Richmond to Chicago along with her daughter, Dorothy, and Henry’s two brothers, Able and Ivory.
“There’s a lot of change in him,” observed his sister, noting her brother was thinner and grayer than when she last saw him, but also something more important. “He’s different on the inside. His heart is different. He thinks different,” she said.
A Chicago businessman paid for a minivan for the family to drive from Virginia and put them up in a hotel. He asked to remain anonymous, but said he was motivated by a sense of family. “Family is very important,” he said.
Williams knows that now. “Everyone needs a family,” he told me.
That reality started to dawn on him during his recovery as he saw relatives come to visit other residents of the Salvation Army treatment center.
He wondered if there might still be somebody out there who cared about him, a thought he had given up long ago as he buried himself deeper and deeper in Chicago’s street life and his drug addiction. “I didn’t really want to deal with a lot of memories, you know,” said Henry of his withdrawal from society. He says he harbored resentment over being abused as a child.
A trip down memory lane led to a family argument, one of those who-did-what-to-whom things. They got past it. “We worked through some rocky memories, and it all turned out to be a beautiful moment,” said Henry. He said he’s rediscovered there’s a “natural bond you get from family you really can’t get nowhere else. It’s like an empty spot that was missing has been filled.”
Just the same, Williams said he now has two families: his biological family and The Salvation Army.
His Virginia family is only too happy to share him with the Salvation Army folks that they credit with turning his life around, but his sister wanted to make sure he understood something. “Guess what, we always loved you, and we always cared about you,” she said. “I always want you to know you are not by yourself.”
I wonder how many other people out there could benefit from hearing those words.
By Mark Brown