Quiet Warrior: How a Chicago cop changed a homeless veteran's life
For Lieutenant John Garrido, helping 60-year-old Anthony Johnson was just another day on the job
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Lieutenant John Garrido drove by it every day. The shingles were coming off the roof. The wood was rotting. That the shack continued to stand at all was something of a miracle. Most of the neighborhood didn’t notice the dilapidated structure at all – when things are seemingly beyond repair, they’re often ignored, forgotten. The shack was out in the open on the corner of a busy street, yet invisible. But for 15 years, every day on his way to work, Garrido noticed. As a 27-year veteran Chicago cop who came from a law enforcement family dedicated to serving the Windy City, Garrido took great pride in his home, particularly his neighborhood of Gladstone Park. He knew something needed to be done.
Garrido opened the piece of plywood that served as the shack’s front door. Among the dirt and trash was a surprising discovery: a stack of recent Sunday newspapers. A return visit the following Sunday revealed what the space truly was – a newsstand. Standing inside was 60-year-old Anthony Johnson.
A CALL TO ACTION
Johnson made a hundred dollars a week selling the daily news. He spent most of his work days at a train platform, but every Sunday he’d sell from the stand. This proved to be quite the endurance test in the frigid mornings of winter – the paper-thin walls lacked any kind of insolation.
After speaking with Johnson’s boss, who agreed the over 40-year-old stand was in dire need of renovation, Garrido spent the better part of 2017 attempting to track down the owner and get the ball rolling on fixing the place up. He didn’t have much luck in either endeavor. So in late October, he took to Facebook Live and asked for the help of the community to give Johnson a better place to work and make the newsstand a symbol of the neighborhood’s pride.
In the 15 years he’s spent in Gladstone Park, Garrido has found the tight-knit community is always willing to come together to do good. They’ve helped him with many CPD initiatives, like sending care packages to the troops. And they’ve helped him with the good work he does off duty, like the Garrido Stray Rescue Foundation – an organization he started a few years ago that reunites lost dogs with their owners or finds new homes for the abused or abandoned. Despite this, he was surprised and slightly overwhelmed by the avalanche of support he received after posting the Facebook video.
Checking in from Milwaukee and Central in Gladstone Park. Stop by Sunday mornings and say hello to Anthony.Posted by John Garrido on Sunday, October 22, 2017
“It took off like crazy,” Garrido said. “All of the sudden I got messages from a bunch of people who really wanted to volunteer.”
Nearly everything required for the job - shingles, screws, nails, paint – was donated. A carpenter volunteered to put the newsstand together. Many local businesses got involved – resulting in reduced costs for lumber and volunteers to fix the roof and install insulation. A number of Chicago organizations donated funds to the project. And a fellow cop, Peter Bucks, painted two murals for the exterior walls as a celebration of the community - depicting Anthony selling newspapers to different residents of Gladstone Park, which many first responders and city workers call their home. Garrido reached out to the local schools and plans to hold contests to determine which students get to paint a third mural for the stand, which will be switched out with a new winner every few months.
“That newsstand went from falling apart to done and pristine within a matter of three weeks,” Garrido said. “And it's a solid tank now; it's really put together.”
‘HE’S NOT ASKING FOR ANYTHING’
As Garrido worked on the newsstand, he got to know Johnson, whose infectious smile and friendly demeanor made it hard for Garrido to guess how deeply he was struggling.
“He couldn't be more humble, he's not asking for anything,” Garrido said. “Sometimes it's like pulling teeth trying to get information out of him.”
During one of their conversations, Garrido discovered Johnson was homeless – for over a decade, selling papers was his only source of income. He’d been sleeping in the newsstand. After further discussion into his history, Garrido also found out Johnson was an Air Force veteran.
“I'd talked to him on and off for over a year, but that was when I first learned that he was actually homeless,” Garrido said. “And he’s homeless I think just because things got away from him. Something happened at some point in his life that sent them in this direction where he just doesn't have enough to get by. He doesn't appear to exhibit any kind of mental illness. He doesn't appear to be an alcoholic or a drug user. He's never been arrested. He just got somehow turned in the wrong direction and just hasn't been able to get back on top of it again.”
Garrido’s mission immediately shifted. He set up a Gofundme for Johnson to put a roof over his head. Once again, the community stepped up - donating money, groceries, and warmer clothes for Johnson. After temporarily getting him a room at a hotel, Garrido found housing for Johnson that’s paid for through the donations. Garrido sees it as a positive first step in an ongoing mission to give the hard-working Johnson a better life.
“I'd like to get him something more like an apartment,” Garrido said. “I think if I can get him that one-stop shopping where he can shower, wash his clothes, and have something to eat in the same place, that will help because ultimately he's not going to ever be able to survive on the hundred dollars a week he's making. We either need to get him into a job that's more steady or we need to get him into some kind of resources. I want to try to make it as easy as possible for him. So when that time comes when we run out of the funds, then he's able to just pick it up from there.”
Anthony Johnson never asked for help. Like many of the 554,000 people without shelter in America, he was out in the open, yet invisible.
But since the newsstand reopened, Johnson has seen an increase in customers who want nothing more than to pick up a paper and talk to the man with the infectious smile. Some of them drive in from as far as 40 miles away just to say hello.
As for Garrido, helping Johnson is just another day on the job.
“All my life - even before I became a police officer - I loved to fix things and to help. And I don't see any profession where you could do that more than as a police officer,” Garrido said. “I think law enforcement is more than just arresting the bad guys and writing tickets. You're a counselor, you're a coach, you're a teacher, you're a variety of roles all in one. Policing is about setting a good example in the community for others to look to and taking a leadership role as much as you can.
I have been approached by a few people that are like, 'All right, so you're going to help this one guy. What's going to happen after the money runs out? Are you really going to change anything with homelessness?' There's a saying in the stray rescue community; helping one dog isn't going to change the world. But for that dog, it's going to change his world. Well you can translate that to people, too. Helping one person isn't going to change the world, but it's going to change their world. And in a sense if everybody starts doing a little bit here and there, ultimately maybe you do make bigger changes. We do what we can, right?”