Heeding a calling one cold night 20 years ago, Dr. Patrick Angelo has been helping the homeless ever since, recently launching a business and a nonprofit to fund even greater efforts.
Even 20 years later, Dr. Patrick Angelo struggles to explain the freezing February night when he felt a command to get into his car and drive downtown to go feed and warm the homeless.
He didn’t know his way around downtown Chicago. But after making some random turns, he arrived at a homeless encampment on Lower Wacker Drive, where he had never been before.
For about 13 years, Angelo spent four nights a week buying food with his own money and bringing it to about 70 people per night in their makeshift shelters in the bowels of the city. He kept up that schedule even while working his day job as a periodontist and developing a business called The Angelo Method. Recently patented, TAM helps people with diabetes and excess weight regain their health. Angelo plans to funnel 100 percent of the profits from the business into helping the homeless, just as Paul Newman donated profits from his salad dressings to charity.
When a Chicago Tribune article came out in 2013 dubbing Angelo “The Angel of Lower Wacker Drive,” several people came forward to help the “angel” dispense sandwiches and kind words. Since then, he has expanded the operation, hiring a leader to coordinate a network of volunteers, though he continues to fund the endeavor out of his own pocket. Six months ago, he finally filed to form a nonprofit and receive 501(c)3 tax status.
Solving the problem of homelessness is not as simple as giving people homes, Angelo says, explaining that most of the “unhoused” people he meets are addicted to heroin, and people with that addiction can’t function in society. While his day job involves helping people bust sugar and carbohydrate addictions, heroin is so highly addictive that it’s much tougher to kick, he notes.
Getting to know street people has also taught Angelo that many kids — and large swaths of youth on the South and West sides of Chicago — grow up without things middle-class people take for granted, such as enough food to eat, money for necessities, two parents in their lives and a safe neighborhood to live in. That creates hurdles for them as they simply try to make it from day to day.
Angelo, 69, who says most people call him by the nickname Doc, found time to chat with Fra Noi.
Fra Noi: Before that night when you felt the instruction, or command, were you concerned about the homeless?
Angelo: No, I had never thought anything with regard to the homeless or people panhandling or standing on the street.
Fra Noi: Take us back to that very first night.
Angelo: It was 2000 or 2001. It was really cold. So you’re home in a nice house and you’re working, and you have the amenities of middle-class America, and the message was, “Go downtown. Feed people who are cold and hungry.” I guess you could say it was a thought, but this was more like someone had me by the shoulders and was shaking me. I’m a Catholic, and it was like Jesus saying, “I’ve given you everything, and you’re not giving enough back.” So it was like 9 o’clock at night, and I got dressed and went to Walgreens and bought hand warmers and gloves and socks.
Fra Noi: So you set out on this freezing night, going on faith. What happened next?
Angelo: I drove downtown, but I’m not a downtown person. I just knew to get off (the expressway) at Ohio Street. The next thing I see is Rock ’n’ Roll McDonalds. So I said, “Give me 120 hamburgers and 70 coffees.” I figured now I’m ready. I took a right on Clark, and I’m looking for people. Now it’s about 10 p.m. I haphazardly took a left, and there was a little street off of Lake Street, and you can turn left, so I did. Within that two- or three-mile stretch we call Lower Wacker, I found 73 people. They were basically in boxes — like refrigerator or stove boxes. I started handing out hand warmers and coffee and clothes. I was there for hours and probably didn’t leave until after 1:30. I kept finding people.
I wouldn’t believe the story if someone else told me, because I never even knew Lower Wacker existed. I don’t want to say divine intervention, but it was odd to have my car just wind up there.
Fra Noi: So you kept on returning to feed the homeless? Four nights a week?
Angelo: I found out that a church group from Evanston was doing it Mondays and a group of nuns was doing it Wednesdays and another group had Sundays, but no one was doing it Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. So from about 2004-13, when the Tribune article appeared, I was doing those four days a week by myself.
I’m 69 years old now. Here I was running this company, doing surgery, and I have five kids, and that became like a part-time job.
So the 2013 Tribune article bailed me out, because people came forward and were able to take some days from me. A gentleman named Mike Roach took Thursdays and had the financial wherewithal to do it himself. Some other church groups, I financially backed them, and they did it. So that’s the loose organization we’ve had since 2013.
About six months ago, I formed a 501(c)3 called The Angel of Lower Wacker Drive Fund and hired a chief giving officer, Aaron Garza. Because this has gotten so big, he really helps me. We cover seven nights.
I would say there have to be at least 30-40 volunteers that help us. So now I’ll go consistently one night a week to Lower Wacker, but then I’m overseeing it. And I’m out in some capacity doing something every day. We’re now also serving Humboldt Park, Pilsen, Uptown, the tent city on Des Plaines and Taylor, and others.
Fra Noi: The need is so great.
Angelo: This last winter was really a wake-up call. That’s why I want to start the 501(c)3, because this has gotten too big for me. I’ve been funding this myself all these years, but for the first time, I realized that I need help.
This (past) winter, for 17 days in February, the high was 16, and the low was minus 8. We had two or three vans out every night picking people up, driving them to shelters. We were putting people up in hotels. We spent $20,000 in 17 days.
There was one boy, a 26-year-old — they called him Picasso because he was such a good artist. We missed him one night. One of our volunteers found him at 6:30 a.m. He was frozen to death. As sad as that is, we have no idea how many people we helped those nights.
Fra Noi: It sounds like you’re growing synchronicity between your profession and your mission to help the homeless.
Angelo: I’m a periodontist, but what I do now is I own The Angelo Method for diabetes reversal and weight loss. We’re able to reverse diabetes and chronic disease. We haven’t had anyone who has been motivated who has failed.
TAM (The Angelo Method) based on Newman’s Own, where profits from his salad dressing funds a charity for kids with cancer: Half the profits [from The Angelo Method] will go to the Angel of Lower Wacker Drive Fund to help homeless people suffer less, and the other half to mentoring them.
There’s a group we support that helps West and South side youth — it’s mostly business owners who give kids summer jobs. You have to give these kids a mentor.
The only way to have fewer heroin addicts is to give kids chances to not be part of the problem, but be part of the solution. If a kid has a single parent and no money and lives in a violent area, they don’t have a lot of opportunities.
If you look at impoverished areas, there are either homeless or there are addictions, and people aren’t trained for jobs. Why would we expect anything else if we’re not putting time and money into helping these kids?
I’m an expert on addictions, because for 20 years, I’ve been working with people addicted to heroin, cocaine and alcohol. The great majority of people without homes are addicted to heroin.
If you diagnose a person who’s homeless, you might think the solution is to give them a home. But it’s not the solution. It’s solvable, but not by giving them a home.
When you have an addiction, it’s really hard to get rid of it by yourself. We stay with them and love them and give them what we can. But for heroin, you have to get them to want to quit, then get them on treatment, then get them out of the environment down there. If you don’t, they’re probably going to fail.
Fra Noi: Tell us about your family.
Angelo: My mom was Sicilian; her parents were born in Catania. They lived in the Taylor Street area.
My dad’s grandpa, Pasqual Angellichio, came from Calabria. At Ellis Island, he held his (immigration) card up, and a police officer crossed off the “licchio” and put an “o” to make it Angelo. My grandfather protested, and the policeman punched him, knocked him down, threw the card at him and said, “Welcome to America, you little greaseball. Move on.” And that’s always stuck with me.
My dad came back from World War II and became a Chicago police officer, later chief investigator of the Cook County coroner.
Until around age 7, we lived in Garfield Park. I remember fighting every day and physically enjoying it, because that was my environment, and I was going to survive. Then, when we moved to near St. Francis Borgia (on the city’s Northwest Side), it was like the suburbs, and by eighth grade, I wanted to be a priest. That’s why I understand the environment those kids are in, because I was in that environment. My young brain thought of violence and survival, and then when I was put in another environment, I changed.
And I never forget that. It’s with me every day.
The Angel of Lower Wacker Drive Fund is accepting contributions at 5440 N. Cumberland Ave., Suite 225, Chicago, Illinois, 60656. For more information, call 773-389-5544 or click here.
The above appears in the December 2021 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.