Houseless, not homeless: Elgin man 'content' with life in 'Tent City'

"I am not homeless. I am houseless."

That's how Doug Henke, a 56-year-old man who lives in a tent in the woods in Elgin, describes his life.

Henke is one of the few year-round residents of "Tent City," an encampment of scattered tents and makeshift dwellings ensconced between the railroad tracks and the Fox River in Elgin. Tent City has been around on and off for at least 15 years, its residents ranging from a handful in winter to up to 50 in summer. Other than emergency responders and people who work with the homeless, few know its exact location.

"We don't need people coming and gawking," Henke said. "Or worse, teenagers who are going to cause trouble."

Henke's life is in many ways unremarkable.

He drinks coffee in the morning, socializes with neighbors and spends time at the public library. He has daily hot meals, a prepaid cellphone through a government low-income program, and a laptop paid by government student financial aid.

But it's a challenging life, no doubt.

Nature is beautiful when spring blossoms, but it's ghastly on freezing winter nights and sweltering, mosquito-infested summer days. Tent City residents may get into alcohol-fueled arguments or set tents on fire when they suspect someone of stealing.

"Think of it as the street you live on. You know all your neighbors. Some of them you know really well, some of them you know by waving 'hi,'" he said. "Some people are much more altruistic than others; some people are more self-centered. Mostly people are looking out for themselves."

Henke has been detailing his "houseless life" on a Facebook blog, partly as a diary, partly because he knows people are curious about how he lives.

"First it was people I invited. Now it's open to everyone. It's for people to get an insight into a regular person living in the woods. You know, the question of, 'Why would you do it?'"

  Doug Henke says that he's "content" living in Elgin's "Tent City." Rick West/

'I am content'

Henke has been living in Tent City since April 2017. He'd been homeless for a time before, then got a job and an apartment only to lose both and become permanently homeless in 2016, he said. He stayed at a PADS homeless shelter in Elgin at first and eventually made his way to Tent City.

Henke said he has been diagnosed with mild bipolar disorder, is an alcoholic and is HIV-positive. Since he started living outdoors, he said, he's been remarkably healthy, suffering only a head cold and a bout of the stomach flu. He walks or bikes everywhere, and he gets annual flu shots and regular checkups at Open Door Clinic in Elgin, he said.

At Tent City, he said, he has found the kind of satisfaction with life that always eluded him. "I am content," he said.

Henke said he grew up in South Elgin and left home as a teenager. He served in the U.S. Navy for a little over a year in his 20s and held a variety of accounting jobs, which he either quit or lost, he said. He attributes that to not liking the work or not getting along with people, but also to his alcoholism.

He candidly states he's had run-ins with the law. Records show he's been arrested several times in Kane County for alcohol-related offenses, theft, battery and, once, domestic violence. His most recent arrest was in early 2015.

  Doug Henke works on his blog at Gail Borden Public Library in Elgin. Rick West/

He also earned a bachelor's degree in business administration in 2012 from Columbia College Missouri, which has a remote campus at Elgin Community College.

Henke said that when he had a "normal life" with a job and an apartment, he was lonely and miserable and even considered suicide. "No one ever came and saw me. I didn't have any friends. I started drinking a lot. I basically went into a very, very dark place."

At Tent City he has his own space and privacy and feels connected to a community of people, however dysfunctional it might be at times, he said. Most importantly, he knows he won't lose his spot.

"When you are homeless, anywhere you go, you know in the back of your mind anyone can tell you to leave," he said. "In Tent City, nobody tells you to leave."

Daily life in the woods

  Doug Henke is among the few year-round residents of Elgin's "Tent City." He says he's houseless, not homeless. Rick West/

Henke takes pride in how he's created his home at Tent City.

"You have to be very MacGyver-ish out here," he said. "You'd be amazed, if you keep your eyes open, how much people throw away."

His campsite includes a tent and an outdoor sitting area draped by six layers of tarps and moving blankets. Inside the tent is his bed, with a mattress made of a comforter and two sleeping bags on top of a folded queen-sized futon perched on soda crates. The floor is covered with office carpeting on top of padded mats.

He weathered the winter by sleeping under several layers of blankets and sleeping bags - the temperature inside his tent is never as low as it is outdoors, he said - and spending lots of time at the library. "When it rains every single day for three days and everything that you touch is wet, then it's miserable," he said.

  Doug Henke spends time at the library in winter to keep warm. "To me, the pluses far outweigh the minuses," he says about "Tent City" life. Rick West/

His furniture includes wooden cabinets, plastic chairs, a coffee table and small tables he made by zip-tying tent poles to soda crates. He's put in decorative touches, like lining the path to his outdoor latrine with pieces of glass.

Everything was either given to him, left on a curb or tossed in the garbage, he said. "That thing was not built in a day," he said.

There are signs that violence can lurk around the corner: a shattered mirror resting against a tree that Henke said was broken by another resident in a fit of rage, and a shard of glass nestled in a tree trunk, whose function he avoided explaining.

Henke starts his mornings by boiling water in a beer can over a campfire to make instant coffee. He also cooks over the fire, storing food in a cooler - learning things like hard cheese keeps longer than the soft kind - and getting fresh water from a natural spring nearby. A resident of Tent City bought a water-testing kit last summer that confirmed the water was potable, Henke said.

  Doug Henke makes ramen noodles by heating water in old beer cans over a fire. Rick West/

"There's always things to do. One day maybe I get up and spend most of the day gathering wood," he said. "It's a constant chore to keep the campsite clean."

He gets free clothes at Wayside Center, where he can shower, do laundry and get lunch. Elgin churches offer breakfast five days a week and dinner every day, twice on Fridays. On Sundays, volunteers deliver dinner to Tent City. "Everyone knows if you're hungry in Elgin, you're an idiot," he said.

Henke makes no apologies for the way he lives and says he's very grateful for the resources available in Elgin. "Elgin is famed as far as how they take care of their homeless population," he said.

He never panhandles, he said, but is always on the lookout for loose change. One of his favorite spots to find it is the student lounge at Elgin Community College, whose library he also frequents. About every two weeks or so he accumulates enough coins to buy a fifth-gallon of the cheapest vodka for $7.80 including tax, he said.

His days follow no schedule other than mealtimes at soup kitchens, which he skips if he feels like it, he said.

  Doug Henke shares his experiences of life in the street on his Facebook blog. Rick West/

"I do what I want, when I want, get up when I feel like it, go to bed when I feel like it," he said. "There's no demands on my life. I don't worry about if I can pay my rent, or if I can pay my car."

What about having nicer things? Or an apartment to stay warm in winter and cool in summer?

Henke maintained that might make him more comfortable, but not happier.

"It's true there's challenges in this kind of existence, a lot of challenges. But they are not different from any other challenges. The biggest difference is that the challenges out there are challenges that I choose. Not challenges that are forced on me."

"To me, the pluses far outweigh the minuses," he said. "Otherwise, I'd be in a shelter."

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