This past Saturday, I attended a memorial service for a man who was instrumental in the early days of the Lincoln Park Community Shelter. Jim Northcutt lived for several years on a bench at Clark and Deming streets. His story made national headlines in 1986 after he and his belongings were set on fire while he slept there, a sign of the times in the mid-80s when homelessness was emerging as a national crisis, and communities were struggling with how to respond. Lincoln Park residents, including those who founded the LPCS, were outraged, and redoubled their efforts to establish a safe haven – a shelter – that was community-supported.
Jim was a sporadic guest at the LPCS in our early years. He spoke little and seemed wary of the assistance we were providing, but was always cordial and allowed a few people to get closer to him. He left an impression, as those gathered on Saturday to remember him told stories of simple interactions and lives changed forever as a result. The mystery of Jim reminded everyone who encountered him that each homeless man and woman had a story, a history, and a family who loved them.
Jim had been an engineer with the CTA until he descended further into depression and mental illness, eventually losing his apartment and touch with his family in the late 60s. His sister Gail finally located him in 1986 when she recognized his description in an article in the Wall Street Journal, chronicling the fire and his unwitting role in a national debate about how to address the growing problem of homelessness. Via a long chain of social workers and priests, Gail helped to get Jim medical attention and temporary housing, and some sense of reconnection before he passed away in 1988 from leukemia.
A year later, the Northcutt family dedicated a drinking fountain to Jim’s memory. The fountain still stands near the North Pond gazebo in Lincoln Park, and is inscribed “All you who are thirsty, come to the water!” (Isaiah 55:1) They gather every five years to celebrate his memory and the reunion they were able to establish before he passed. I was honored to be included in this year’s tribute, and am so inspired by the stories I heard from Jim’s family and long-time Lincoln Park residents who remember him.
Unknowingly, Jim’s journey helped to fan the spark of awareness and compassion that many Lincoln Park residents were feeling in the mid-1980s, prompting them to come together to form the LPCS. Although Jim died many years ago, his memory lives strong in this community, proving that the fire of compassion is still burning strong in Lincoln Park!
--Erin Ryan, LPCS Executive Director