As of 2018, there were 76,998 homeless people in Chicago alone. With higher odds of having underlying medical conditions and a lack of access to proper medical care, many people experiencing homelessness right now are at an increased risk of COVID-19. This is one story of a man whose life without a home has been shaken since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. A few weeks ago, I traveled to Chicago in search of a story to fulfill a photojournalism assignment, but I ended up with so much more. I met Mike Jones outside of the Art Institute on a Monday afternoon, and we quickly developed a bond that surpassed what I ever could have expected. Mike is one of the most caring, thoughtful, and easygoing people I have ever met. He was eager to share his story with me, and appreciated that I was there to listen. Mike “Johnny” Jones, 53, has been homeless for most of his adult life. Jones moved to Chicago from Mobile, Alabama, with his family when he was 12.Years after graduating high school and studying for a year at DePaul University, he lost his job and became homeless. Jones asks for help from passersby on the corner of Michigan Ave and E. Adams St., a busy intersection for sightseers and tourists in downtown Chicago. “Help the homeless today?” He repeats. While most pass him up without notice, a few people stop and offer him dollar bills and change. “They don’t have to give me anything,” Jones tells me, after receiving cash from strangers. “But they do… And I think that’s God looking out for me.” He says times have been exceptionally hard since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. He says since the beginning of the pandemic, the homeless shelters aren’t safe, with a risk of getting sick and an outbreak of bedbugs. Jones counts his cash to buy cigarettes from a friend named Frank. Jones says he doesn’t think Frank is homeless, but he frequents the area and “helps us out when he can.” A young girl stops to give Mike some money. He tells me that if he can get at least $25, he’ll have enough money to rent a hotel room for the night and take a shower. “I’m gonna get you an A on this assignment,” Mike tells me, laughing, as he takes a break on the steps of the Art Institute of Chicago. “Cause my story is real. You can’t find stories like mine just anywhere.” “I’ve lost a lot of friends… I’ve had to talk friends out of suicide,” Mike tells me. “When you’re homeless out here, you don’t know if you’re going to wake up frozen or half dead. People wonder what they’re even living for anymore… What’s the point?” Mike pauses. “I live for God. That’s the thing that keeps me going.” Jones calls it a day and stops for a beer at 7-Eleven before catching the L train. He says beer and marijuana help him calm down when he starts to worry. “Sometimes I get real scared and nervous. These things help me relax, so I do what I can,” he says. Mike takes a breath on the platform after hurrying up the stairs to make the train. He is going to buy weed, but tells me not to come with him because his dealers could think I’m an undercover police officer. “They’re gonna think you’re a cop. They don’t trust someone like you if you’re with me. I could tell them all I want, but they won’t listen,” he tells me.
Mike Jones flashes me a peace sign as he prepares to get on the green line towards Harlem. He has earned enough money today to rent a hotel room for the night. As he gets on the train, he says to me, “God bless you man. I hope you get an A.”