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Doctor helps give homeless man a second chance

Years ago, Dr. Allen Goldberg was buying magazines from Everett Atkinson. The two would later form a bond that changed each other's perspectives on life.

July 13, 2009|Judith Graham

CHICAGO — Three years ago, Everett Atkinson was a medical disaster waiting to happen.

The 6-foot-7 homeless man couldn't stand up long without his legs swelling severely. His heart was bad, his circulatory system damaged and his body giving out after years of alcoholism, drug abuse and neglect.

Help came from a doctor who had bought StreetWise magazine -- a Chicago enterprise designed to help men and women out of poverty -- from Atkinson for years.

When Dr. Allen Goldberg learned Atkinson had been thrown out of a flophouse because he couldn't pay the bill, the doctor offered him a chance to live in his building and rebuild his health.

"I had never met a person who had nothing before," said Goldberg, 66, a retired pediatrician.

Since the encounter, Atkinson has given the doctor insights -- for example, how African Americans in poor communities can distrust white doctors -- which Goldberg has used in his volunteer work in tough neighborhoods.

"He helps me understand a lot, because who knows better about being disadvantaged?" Goldberg said.

Atkinson, 57, traces his downward slide to when he found out at 18 that his parents had adopted him as an infant. His father had died eight years before; an only child, Atkinson was extremely attached to his mother, who passed away in 1973.

She "used to tell me: 'Whatever you do, Everett, tell the truth.' And then I found out she never told me the truth about who I was," he said.

Atkinson said his drinking and drug use started after he found his biological family, which was headed by an abusive father.

For a while, Atkinson said, he pulled himself together and became a salesman for a men's retail chain. After that he worked as a bouncer in Chicago clubs; he drank and used cocaine. In 2003, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of battery and was sentenced to probation.

Goldberg and his wife, Evi, a retired anesthesiologist, also have known hardship. The doctor's father, a New York firefighter, was injured in the course of duty and the family had to live on his disability checks. Evi grew up in Germany after World War II, and her family was among the many displaced.

"So many homes were bombed, people would take you in," she said, remembering living on another family's farm. "So it didn't seem strange to think about doing that for someone here."

The couple had come to know Atkinson during the more than 12 years he sold StreetWise at a Walgreens. Unfailingly polite, he would talk with customers about his dreams of changing his circumstances and of helping others. "I realized he was unusual," Goldberg said.

Seeking a new direction, Atkinson had decided to become a soul food chef and began cooking occasionally at bars. But there wasn't enough money to start a business or pay for a place to sleep.

When he told Goldberg about being forced out of a flophouse, Evi insisted the couple intervene. "He needs some place to get back on his feet," she recalled saying. "We have an apartment and it's empty right now."

In November 2006, Atkinson moved in, and the doctor established ground rules. No smoking. No visitors staying overnight regularly. No commercial cooking in the kitchen. Atkinson signed a lease and agreed to pay rent of an amount of his choosing. He is still selling StreetWise.

"I didn't want him to feel like he was a charity case," Goldberg said. "The whole point was help him become independent."

When Atkinson said he didn't qualify for any government benefits, Goldberg found a social worker who discovered he was indeed eligible for Social Security disability and the state's Medicaid healthcare program.

Before checks from the government arrived, Goldberg took Atkinson to his bank and used his own money to open an account.

The two men meet about twice a week to go over what Atkinson needs to do to get a catering business established. On a recent afternoon, Goldberg emphasized the importance of securing liability insurance, and Atkinson brought the doctor up to date on his plans for a big dinner July 12 at a local bar.

"I want to make this dinner an annual neighborhood event," Atkinson said.

Through their interactions, Goldberg said, he has learned about the need to listen to other people carefully and without judgment -- a lesson he's using in volunteer work with the Chicago Asthma Consortium.

The group plans to hold "listening sessions" with residents of poor neighborhoods later this year about ways to reduce asthma's burden.

"Overcoming inequalities in healthcare has to be done in the community, with the community, by the community," the doctor said.

Atkinson and Goldberg know their arrangement isn't permanent.

"I want to see him succeed and become self-sufficient," the doctor said.

"I want to be like everybody else and pay my rent, have my own place, pay my taxes," Atkinson said.

The formerly homeless man's health has improved too.

Having a place to call home made all the difference, along with constant support from Goldberg and his wife.

"It lifts your health to have a place to rest and get some peace and quiet," Atkinson said. "When you're homeless, you're a disposable person. When you've got an address and a phone number, you're coming back into society again."


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