US community grieves loss of a kind neighbour who lived in a tent

  • People
  • Monday, 26 Feb 2024

After Pete’s passing, a nearby Catholic Church invited guests to attend a special ‘Our Neighbour Pete’ mass. Photo: TNS

For a few years – it’s hard to say how many exactly – a man named Pete lived in a tent near the ramp connecting Addison Street to Interstate 90 in Chicago’s Irving Park neighbourhood in the United States.

He had a kind heart and a wry sense of humour. (He placed a “For Rent” sign outside his tent.) He was quick to lend a hand, and he made friends easily. He was known, in part, for carrying around a stuffed Alf – furry star of the briefly, wildly popular ’80s sitcom.

His friends found a second stuffed Alf when they were cleaning out Pete’s tent recently, in addition to the Alf he kept in his backpack.

His friends were cleaning out his tent because Pete passed away in early January. And I was talking to those friends because I’ve been watching a kind of remarkable outpouring of love and support and grieving from folks who knew Pete, mostly through small, everyday encounters. And I wanted to better know him too.

Pete’s tent sat near Athletic Field Park, a park district facility with a playground and basketball courts and a field house and a sort of legendary (at least in Chicago neighbourhood circles) ceramics class. Park employees and park users alike made friends with Pete, and when he passed, the park’s advisory council posted about it on their Facebook page.

The comments quickly piled up. Dozens. Then 50. Then 100. Then more than 100.

“My son was a friend of Pete’s and used to bring him his lunch provided at summer camp,” one commenter wrote. “I was surprised at first that they had this sweet relationship, but ultimately realised it was good for both of them. Pete put a name and face to what being an unhoused neighbour means. We are better for having known him.”

“I’ll miss his polite soul and quiet jokes that I didn’t know I needed until he had me laughing out loud,” wrote another. “I hope he’s somewhere warm and peaceful.”

A memorial garden was proposed. A nearby Catholic Church invited guests to attend a special “Our Neighbour Pete” mass. People posted photos of candles and cards left outside his tent.

“He had these big, blue beautiful eyes that were so kind and welcoming and warm,” Morgan McLuckie told me. “I would always tell him, ‘It’s good to see you,’ and his No. 1 response was, ‘It’s good to be seen’.”

McLuckie is the CEO of The Orange Tent Project, a Chicago-based organisation that provides food and support, mostly in the form of repurposed ice fishing tents, to people experiencing homelessness.

The Orange Tent Project built Pete’s tent. McLuckie and Orange Tent staffers visited Pete frequently to bring food and hygiene supplies and propane tanks to fuel the tent’s heater.

As far as I can tell, Pete died from a blood clot in his leg that caused a stroke.

Friends said he struggled with substance use, particularly alcohol, and often turned to The Night Ministry – a Chicago-based organisation that provides health care and other support for people experiencing poverty.

It sounds like he spent his final hours at The Night Ministry’s shelter, in a warm bed, surrounded by people who cared for him.

Staff from the Orange Tent Project went to Pete’s tent after he passed, along with a minister, and prayed.

“I think it would be sweet to build a flower bed where his tent used to be,” McLuckie said. “Or a bird sanctuary. He was always feeding the pigeons.”

The Athletic Field Park advisory council is urging Pete’s community of friends, and anyone moved by his story, to donate to The Night Ministry or The Orange Tent Project in his honour.

“He was such a sweet soul,” McLuckie said. “I think he deserved so much more.”

I think so too. I don’t pretend to know the nuances of his life – the moments and challenges, triumphs and weaknesses, talents and mistakes, maybe, that shaped who he was and how he lived.

We’re all a sum of those parts with vastly different amounts of grace and luck handed out to some of us.

But with his time on Earth, however brief, he brought joy to his neighbours and kindness to a community and a little warmth to an awfully cold world.

And that’s a lot. That’s worth remembering. – Tribune News Service

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