No one wants a huffer in the neighborhood. Everyone knows that.
What about a homeless drunk? Same thing.
I was reminded of that truism when Jacob Montross came to the office last week.
Montross had visited before, after I wrote a column about street-corner panhandlers nearly two years ago. He showed up angry and, after we chatted, left, saying I really wasn't such a bad fellow, which was nice, even though I suspected that he'd been drinking.
The recent demise of Ahmad Verdell occasioned Montross' request that we chat again. I was busy. He insisted. And so he stopped by.
Verdell died behind a Walmart on North Dirksen Parkway on Nov. 8, surrounded by cans of compressed air, commonly used to clean computer keyboards and also commonly used to get high. My guess is, he may have used a five-finger discount to obtain the goods. It doesn't matter now. He's dead. In September, Verdell, arguing for a proposed homeless shelter, told Springfield aldermen about his plight. He didn't say how he'd become homeless or how he lost custody of his five kids or provide details of his wife's death in 2016. Turns out she, also, had died after huffing. That doesn't matter anymore. She's dead.
This time, Montross wasn't alone when he came to see me. He was accompanied by a social worker who, mostly, texted while Montross, mostly, rambled. That's not to say she wasn't paying attention. Rather, it seemed as if she'd heard all this before, and so there was no need to listen closely.
"What in the fuck..." Montross exclaimed at one point.
"Hey!" barked the social worker, looking up from her phone and directly at Montross. She asked that I keep her name out of this, and I couldn't see a reason why not. Call her Susan.
"Sorry, I have to listen to her," Montross responded, as if a child following mother's orders. It was clear this woman younger than he means the world to him. Montross, 36, says she saved his life.
Susan is an outreach worker affiliated with a program aimed at helping the homeless. Before she came along, Montross didn't have a LINK card or health insurance. He has a bad back and uses a walker. With Susan's help, he qualified for Social Security disability benefits, which have gotten him off the street and into an apartment. It turns out, he lives not far from me.
This is not to paint a picture of puppy dogs and rainbows. Not all is well in the Montross universe, where happy endings are dear. He remains a drunk and accepts that. He needs back surgery.
A couple weeks after our 2018 meeting, Montross got busted for holding a sign on Veterans Parkway, asking for money. It wasn't the first time. Court records show that he's been cited or arrested 10 times for the crime of using cardboard to panhandle alongside roads. "Anywhere there's a Walmart, I've been around it," he says.
He hasn't paid fines, nor has he shown up for court dates. He's been jailed after flunking probation, which seems pointless. What good does it do to imprison a penniless person for holding a sign? The deterrent effect is Greek to Montross, who still owes the city for the time he got caught drinking beer in an alley a decade ago. I wonder: Did the city really expect to collect its $150 when it filed a small-claims lawsuit against Montross in 2011?
There's also the matter of the First Amendment. The American Civil Liberties Union in August sued Illinois State Police, the DuPage County state's attorney and Downers Grove cops on grounds that the same law Montross has flouted is unconstitutional. Montross said the same thing, pleading free speech in a handwritten motion to withdraw his 2018 guilty plea to holding a sign. A judge said no.
After one bust for roadside panhandling, Montross tells me, he asked a judge to order him into rehab, but the judge said there was no money for it. Now, he says, he wants to stay drunk, but probation terms call for a drug/alcohol evaluation, plus completion of any recommended treatment. He says he walked out of an evaluation, figuring he'd be told to report for inpatient treatment that he doesn't want. "This is a waste of everybody's time," he asserts. And so the state's attorney wants to revoke probation.
Meanwhile, Montross needs spinal surgery. Medicaid will pay. But he can't undergo an operation unless he stops drinking, and so the woman whom Montross regards as his savior says that the best thing would be 15 days in jail, the stick the state wields if he won't agree to rehab. When he's freed, he'll be sober and ready for surgery. Meanwhile, he'll have paid his debt to society for holding a piece of cardboard alongside the road. "I feel like jail time is killing two birds with one stone," Susan says.
How much longer Montross will be alive, who knows, given how he guzzles malt liquor. But so long as he isn't dead, what happens to him matters, I think. Montross isn't giving up.
"I've got a phone now, I've got my Obamacare stuff – I'm slowly becoming a success story," he says. "The system wants you to fail. If it worked, they wouldn't have jobs."
Contact Bruce Rushton at