Chicago-area dentist honored for service to the homeless
The periodontist loads up the purchases in his black Cadillac then heads east in search of the homeless living on a 3-mile stretch of Chicago's Lower Wacker Drive to hand out the food, drinks, along with hand warmers and blankets.
The goodwill trip takes about two hours to complete but it's pretty much routine. Dr. Angelo has made that twice-a-week trip for the past 13 years.
"After work, I have a decision to make," he said. "Am I going home to watch TV? Go out to dinner? Or can I take out $200 from my own pocket and feed people? The decision is pretty easy."
Dr. Angelo's trips to Lower Wacker have largely remained a secret, with only a few people knowing what he was up to. Many of his relatives, he said, didn't know about his work until the Chicago Tribune published a feature in November 2013 that referred to him as the "Angel of Lower Wacker Drive."
"To me it was like going to the gym after work," he said. "It wasn't anything that I would brag about."
Following the article, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago City Council adopted a resolution Dec. 11, 2013, in recognition of Dr. Angelo's "many years of quiet service to the homeless men and women living on Lower Wacker Drive."
The resolution commended him for "his tender heart, wisdom and compassion, and for devoting his time and energy to helping the homeless, not just during the Christmas season, but throughout the year."
A graduate of Loyola University School of Dentistry, Dr. Angelo said his work with the homeless stems from being a dentist. He has had his own practice in River Forest, Ill., since 1982.
"It all goes back to dentistry. This profession offers us unique opportunities to enjoy our life much more than other professionals. It gives us the latitude to do more," he said. "I don't know another profession that offers their skills and services for free to those who are in need. I feel blessed to be a dentist. And because I feel blessed, I feel the need to do more to help others."
On a cold February night 13 years ago, Dr. Angelo said, he was enjoying a warm bath when it hit him.
"There are cold, hungry people downtown and I'm here in my warm home," he said. "I just put some clothes on, went to Walgreens and bought hand warmers."
He then went to the Rock N Roll McDonalds in the River North neighborhood and bought burgers and decaf coffee. From there, he headed south on Clark Street, made a left on Lake Street and then entered an opening that led him to Lower Wacker Drive (immortalized for non-Chicagoans in the movie "The Blues Brothers").
"It was as if God was in my car because I'm terrible with directions," he said. "I've never been on Lower Wacker but that's where I ended up."
That evening at Lower Wacker Drive, he met about 70 of the city's homeless population. Thirteen years later, he hasn't stopped returning. He estimates he spends about $30,000 of his own money to purchase food, drinks, blankets, hand warmers and other necessities. During the hot summer months, he brings fruit punch instead of coffee.
At first, he encouraged the people he met to seek shelter or treatment, but most simply didn't want to hear it. Today, he focuses on providing the basic needs of food and warmth.
The work remained largely anonymous until a chance meeting between his family and one of his patients at a comedy club in New York City where the topic of Dr. Angelo's goodwill work came up. The patient knew a Chicago Tribune reporter who then reached out to Dr. Angelo for the story. Soon, other news organizations and television stations followed suit. Talk show host Steve Harvey featured Dr. Angelo in his show during a "Harvey's Hero" segment.
Although Dr. Angelo had been hesitant to share his story at first, he said, the response has been tremendous and inspiring. Various organizations have since donated blankets and knitted hand warmers, scarves and hats.
"I've received beautiful emails of support," Dr. Angelo added. "A girl emailed me saying that because of the story, she was going to do more to help as well. Best message I ever received."