November 12, 2012 by theappress.wordpress.com
Rain or shine,Gregory Nelson stands at the chaotic street corner of Sheffield and Fullterton, anchored as a sea of college students and work professionals rush by.
Most ignore him, thinking he’s simply another beggar among the countless in Chicago. Others quicken their pace, averting their eyes from his cheerful greeting. Some think he’s just crazy, especially since he’s never without his horse puppet in hand.
But Gregory is not a beggar or a junkie, he’s a man who has turned his life around and now helps other homeless and addicted teens and adults do the same.
And for the record his puppet horse’s name is Arthur.
* * * *
Nelson was born and raised in the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago, one of eleven children. Growing up he was constantly surrounded by gang action, alcohol abuse and drugs, especially from his brothers and sisters. Soon enough Nelson was introduced to the drug world, turning to hustling, stealing and doing whatever it took to get money for drugs.
“It was always on my mind,” he remembers. “I thought I was happy when I was on drugs or when I was drinking, but as soon as my money ran out my happiness was gone too.”
Soon Nelson was on the streets, left with nothing but his dark addiction.
“I would beg for money, manipulate people into giving me money and steal out of people’s garages and cars,” says Nelson. “But then I would start to feel guilty about it. These people worked so hard for their things and here I was taking them for myself.”
The guilt soon became too much for Nelson and he finally broke down, falling to his knees praying to a God he wasn’t even sure existed.
“I said, God if you really exist or if there is somebody out there listening to me, I need help. I don’t want to do this anymore.”
In October 1992 he met Jim LoBianco, creator of the weekly non-profit magazine StreetWise, a publication sold by the poor and homeless in Chicago.
StreetWise allows vendors to buy the magazines for 90¢ a piece and sell them for two dollars, making a profit of $1.10 for every magazine sold. Every Wednesday vendors are able to pick up their supply of magazines for the week.
Through his new job being one of the first vendors for StreetWise and daily prayer Nelson was able to fight his addiction once and for all, working his way off the streets and into a stable home after years of struggle. But it wasn’t always easy and Nelson had to let go of numerous friendships that were a harm to his progress.
“Holidays are especially hard for me. I lost a brother and sister to drugs, another sister in an accident, my mother and my two kids all around the holidays and their birthdays,” he says slowly. “So many times I start to feel bad and it’s been rough, but I turn to prayer instead of drugs.”
* * * *
Nelson continues to sell the magazine, sticking to his favorite spot just outside DePaul University’s campus. Arthur, his battered, brown horse puppet is with him to draw smiles from passersby and collect the two dollars StreetWise costs between his plushy white teeth.
“I love seeing the students every day, they say hi to me, talk with me, and I look out for them. I make sure to keep troublemakers away so the area is safe.”
One thing students can always count on Gregory for is to watch their bikes parked outside Dominic’s.
“I ride my bike everywhere, I love riding,” he says. “So when students are in class I watch their bikes so they don’t get stolen.”
He also works with a program sharing his story and counseling other homeless people in the city battling addictions.
“I want to be doing good for others and even though I love myself and am happy where I am now, I care more for the students at DePaul and people that are in the situation I once was in.”
Nelson said he was considering leaving the city to live with his sister in Indiana, but couldn’t bear to leave the many friends he has made.
For now he’ll stay in the city at his favorite spot on the corner of Sheffield and Fullerton selling StreetWise and touching the lives of many others.
Oh, and Arthur will be there too.