Homeless man turns advocate

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Sunday, January 20, 2008
— He thought he’d grow up to be a cop.

He tried a turn at medical school.

What Dusty Jenks never dreamed was that he’d end up homeless.

Jenks, 38, moved to Delavan last spring from Chicago, where he’d lived for 20 years on and off. Despite his best-laid plans of working as a private chef, Jenks found himself jobless and homeless in a strange town.

For 16 days, Jenks lived in a tent with two strangers behind Delavan’s Masonic Temple.

Eventually he made it in to the Twin Oaks Homeless Shelter in Darien Township.

“It would have been a lot easier to get on a train and go back to Chicago,” Jenks said. “But I thought, ‘There’s got to be a higher calling.’”

He’s still not sure what that calling is, but Jenks does volunteer as a member of the shelter’s advisory board.

He and other former residents look at new programs to see if they would benefit clients.

Jenks is genuine and passionate about making life better for homeless and disadvantaged people in Delavan, said Lisa Furseth, executive director of Community Action.

“Dustin took an experience he had in his life in terms of finding himself homeless and transformed that to being an advocate,” Furseth said.

He also is adamant that being homeless does not make one a bad person, Furseth said.

Frankly, it can happen to anyone, Jenks said.

“Anyone can become homeless at any time,” he said. “Being homeless, it’s not undignified at all,” Jenks said. “It’s just a part of life.”

What he didn’t realize while on the consuming end was the amount of work it takes to run a shelter, even one as small as Twin Oaks, which operates as a 12 single-unit apartment.

“I didn’t know how much work they had to go through and some of the arguments they have to keep things going,” Jenks said. “I didn’t know all the phone calls they were making on my behalf.”

Running a shelter is hard, but making a difference in a homeless person’s life doesn’t have to be, Jenks said.

“A lot of these (homeless) guys would love to get into a conversation so they can validate themselves,” Jenks said. “They think, ‘I may not have a home, but I’m just as human, just as fragile as the next person.’

“Being a valid part of society is very, very important to someone who’s just lost everything.”

Last spring wasn’t Jenks first experience as a homeless man. When he was 18 and “knew more than” his mom and dad—he says with his warm grin—he ran away from home and lived for a month under Chicago’s Lower Wacker Drive.

It was a “horrifying” shock after growing up in the sheltered life of the Chicago suburbs, Jenks said.

Jenks has the perfect job to appreciate the warmth of small-town life compared to the craziness of metropolitan life.

He pulls two shifts daily as a crossing guard at Seventh Street and Walworth Avenue.

“I’m standing out there and horns blow, but it’s just someone waving,” Jenks said. “In the big city, you don’t get that kind of friendliness. Here you meet real people who have real problems, and they talk about it. They’re not ashamed.”

Age: 38
Community: In Delavan since 2006
Hometown: Born at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. Lived in New York until he was 5 before moving back to Chicago
Occupation: Crossing guard and English-Spanish translator
What he wanted to be when he grew up: As a child, Jenks thought he’d be a cop like his dad. Eventually he went to medical school.
For fun: Jenks is trained as an executive chef. His favorite thing to bake is pastries, but he also likes to make Greek and Puerto Rican dishes.

“You can make a pan of beans and rice and live off it for two weeks,” Jenks said.

Special talents: Speaks three dialects of Spanish, a skill he picked up living in Chicago’s Logan Square, a Latino neighborhood on the city’s northwest side.

As a toddler, Jenks spoke Greek and Spanish. He didn’t learn English until he was 5.

Favorite guilty pleasure: Agatha Christie novels, particularly the Miss Marple series
How he describes himself: “I’m pretty much a nerd. I don’t have the TV on much. If I do, it’s PBS. I have no interest in feature films. I read the dictionary a lot.”

Last updated: 1:21 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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