Harry Ickes had a good job as production supervisor at Hammond’s Shoe Factory. He and his family lived well. There were six children ranging in age from fourteen to four. The Ickes family had a nice home in a good neighborhood. The children’s friends were in and out of the house all the time. Then the shoe company’s production was moved to Malaysia. Harry was out of a job and began a lengthy search for work. The family lost their house and moved into a three room apartment in a run-down neighborhood. Harry became more and more discouraged and was silent most of the time. He filled out applications, stood in lines, and occasionally went for interviews. His hopes then would rise, but when he wasn’t chosen, he was crushed. He would return to searching and applying once more. Finally, his unemployment benefits expired. The next week he said good-bye to his family and walked out the door.
Mary Ickes struggled to pay rent and utilities, buy food, and keep her children in clothes and in school. She worked as a waitress and took in laundry to wash and iron for friends from their recent affluent past. Working as hard as she could, they were barely managing while her husband was receiving an unemployment check. When the checks stopped, it was only a matter of weeks before the utilities would be shut off and they would be evicted.
Mary’s parents lived on a farm in northwestern Missouri. She asked them if she and the children could move in with them. They very reluctantly agreed. She loaded the car with the youngest child, clothes, and food to eat on the way. She picked up her children from the elementary school and the middle school. Their oldest son, Henry, was in high school. The car was full. Reluctantly she decided that he was old enough to take care of himself.
“How can I do this? He is my oldest child; I love him and I am so proud of him. What else can I do? The car is jam-packed as it is. Henry is smart and mature for his age. He’ll probably be sent to a foster family. Henry will manage. He always knows what to do. If we stay around here, the welfare will put all my children in foster care.”
When Henry arrived home, the house was empty. Open dresser drawers and clothes on the floor - his mother had packed up what she could into the car and had gone someplace with the other children and without him. Had she gone to someplace she had found that was cheaper to rent? Would she come back for him? He searched for a note, but there was none.
Henry scrounged around for something to eat. The only food was canned goods. There were not many of those. What if she didn’t come back? He sat down in despair and thought about it. The longer he thought, the more he was convinced that she wasn’t coming back. Why didn’t she at least let him know where they were going? He didn’t know how long he could come back to this apartment before the eviction was carried out and utilities were cut off. He would go on living here as long as he could. Maybe she would mail him a letter.
What were his options if he were locked out? He could tell the school counselor. The school counselor would report it to Human Services. He would be taken away to be placed in foster care. He had known youths who were in foster care. They told him:
“You might be fortunate enough to be placed with a decent family. Probably not. Most likely you’ll find yourself with other youths, mostly troubled semi-delinquents, in a family that is only interested in the money they’re paid by the State for keeping you.”
The other option was to look out for himself. If that failed, he could always turn himself in to the authorities. He had to start making plans now. He made up two rolls, each containing a pair of jeans, a shirt, underwear, and socks. He rolled them tight and tied them with string so that they would fit into a locker. One roll he would put into his school locker, and one roll he would put into his gym locker. In his back pack he put soap, toothbrush, underwear, and socks.
Next, he went to the window by the fire escape. It had always been locked. Now he unlocked it and banged and strained until he had it open. He rubbed soap in the grooves until it would open without a lot of effort. If the landlord padlocked the apartment, he would have an alternate way to get into the apartment for a few more days. It was still cold outside, too cold to spend the nights in the open.
At school he stashed the bundles in his lockers. Breakfast and lunch were free. He took any food items that were durable and put them in his pockets and later his back pack – little boxes of cereal, crackers, sugar packets, catsup packs.
After school he went to grocery stores and restaurants looking for a job. He told them that he was sixteen years old. One day he went into a small café with no name outside, just a neon sign “EAT”. It was what his mother called a “greasy spoon”. The man behind the counter was burly. He needed a shave. He was wearing a dirty white apron and a tired looking chef’s hat.
“Yeah. What do you want? I don’t give handouts. I don’t buy gimcracks for the school band.”
“I want a job. I can sweep, clean the tables, wash dishes.”
“Have I got a deal for you! My waitress and dishwasher both walked out. You clean off the tables, wash the pots and pans, and run the dishwashing machine. I’ll pay you five dollars a night and you can keep all the tips. When I get a waitress, she’ll clean off the tables, but she’ll get all the tips. When can you start?”
“I can start now.”
Henry’s mother wrote a letter to Henry telling him where they were and promising to send for him as soon as they had an apartment of their own and she had the money to send him for bus fare. The letter was returned “Forwarding address unknown”.
Henry worked evenings after school, on Saturdays, and Sunday afternoons. The work was hard and dirty. He was only able to get back into the apartment for about a week. After he finished work at the café, he would return to the school campus and look for a sheltered place to spend the night. Often he could get into the tractor shed, or he would climb onto a school bus. As soon as the school building was open, he would go into the gym locker room, take a shower, and change his clothes. On Mondays and Thursdays he would go into a room that was sometimes used for Home Economics. A washer and a dryer were there. It wasn’t long before the Home Ec teacher caught him.
“Henry Ickes, what do you think that you are doing?”
“Ma’am, my mother works two jobs. She doesn’t always have time to go to the laundromat. Being in high school, I don’t want kids making fun of me for wearing dirty clothes.”
“I see. Use the machines as often as you want, Henry.”
The end of school was fast approaching. The weather was getting warmer. If he had to sleep outside he could, but it was dangerous sleeping outside. Where was he going to take showers? He had enough money to go to a Laundromat. There had been a waitress at the café for a long time, so he had just been getting five dollars a night. Even so, he had accumulated quite a bit of money. He was afraid of it being stolen. He had moved his rolls of clothing to the café. He had some money in his pockets, some in each clothing roll, and some in his back pack. He continued to spend his nights on the campus of the high school. There were a number of sheltered places he found, though the school buses were now locked inside the garage.
One day a policeman was in the café.
“Hey, Tony, haven’t you heard about child labor laws?”
“What do you mean?”
“That boy isn’t eighteen. Does he have a work permit?”
“I guess. I don’t know.”
“I’ll be in tomorrow and I want to see a work permit.”
As soon as the policeman left, Tony gave Henry a ten dollar bill.
“You’ve been one of the best workers I’ve had, but you have to go now; and don’t come back.”
Henry left carrying his two rolls of clothes and his back pack. Losing his job at the café meant two other significant losses. He had no place to store his clothes, and he no longer had access to free food. He always found enough food on the dishes that came back to be washed.
It was about that time that Mary Ickes wrote to the Department of Human Services:
In March of this year I was evicted from the apartment where I was living with my six children. My husband had left the previous month. I took my five youngest children with me to go live with my parents. I left the oldest boy, Henry Allen Ickes, and I assume that he has been placed in a foster home. I have found a job here and I am able to pay rent to my parents and to contribute to the food bill. I can afford to pay bus fare for Henry to come here and join us so that he will be here when school begins the day after Labor Day.
My address and phone number are below. Please let me know what I need to do to have Henry sent to us here.
/Mary Alice Ickes/
The Department of Human Services replied that they had no record of Henry Allen Ickes in their system. They suggested that she contact the police department and report him as a missing person.
Henry sat down on a bench in the park. He prayed,
“O Lord, please help me. I don’t know where to go or what to do.”
After his family left, he had continued to attend church. As his appearance had become more scruffy, others had avoided him.
While he was praying a young lady sat down beside him. Her face was washed, her hair was combed, but her clothes were dirty and torn; her shoes scuffed and worn.
“Hi. My name is Alice. What’s yours?”
“My name is Henry.”
“Henry, you look exactly like someone who has just arrived in town and has no place to go.”
“You are halfway correct. I never left town, but my family did.”
“I ran away from home several months ago. My step father was abusing me. My mother didn’t believe me. She said that I was flirting with him. As soon as the weather was warm enough, I took money out of his wallet one night, went to the bus station, and took a bus to this city. I wanted to get far away from him. I didn’t realize what a dangerous thing I had done. There are pimps and drug dealers trying to snatch young teenagers and make slaves of them.
“I was standing in the bus station, almost in a daze, when this young man came up to me, and said,
“’Eleanor, I’m so glad to see you.’
“In a quiet whisper he said,
“’Come with me. I’ll explain outside.’
“His name is Douglas. He has taken it upon himself to rescue homeless youths and help them get some direction in their lives. I’ll take you to him, if you want.”
“It seems like God sent you to answer my prayer.”
They walked for many blocks to the warehouse district. Most of the warehouses were now vacant. Alice went up to a green door with a sign “No Trespassing”. Where there had once been window panes, there were now plywood pieces. She opened the door and led Henry into the dark, cavernous interior. His eyes adjusted to the dim light from a dirty skylight. He saw various bundles against the wall.
“Put your things down wherever there is a vacant space…Laugh, that’s a joke. Let’s check the bulletin board.”
She led him over to a corkboard bulletin board hanging crazily on the wall. In black marking pen and large letters on a white sheet of paper was this notice: “Supper @ St. Teresa’s 5PM”
“Douglas always has the name of the church where there will be food for the homeless that evening. Time and days lose meaning when you are walking the streets all day. When a church has a free clothes closet, Douglas lets us know that too.”
Henry and Alice walked to St.Teresa’s Church and waited outside the parish hall until the doors opened. Thin soup, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and hot coffee were the supper. The homeless sat at the tables, hugging their coffee, prolonging the time when they would have to go back out into the streets.
Back at the warehouse there were eight other youths. Douglas announced where they could go for breakfast. Then he took up his guitar and they began to sing: “Kum-Ba-Ya”, “Michael Row The Boat”, “Allelu”, “It’s Me, O Lord”, etc. Douglas ended with a prayer for each of them. When Henry lay down on the rough wood floor, he was happier than he had been in months.
He never woke up. In another part of the warehouse some homeless men were drinking. They accidentally started a fire. It rapidly became an inferno and spread along the ceiling. Some of the youths woke up in time to get out. Douglas, Henry, Alice, and two others succumbed to smoke inhalation before the flames reached them.