How We Got The Story: Homeless advocate Doug Henke's lonely death brought profound sadness

My relationship with Doug Henke, a homeless blogger from Elgin, was unlike any I've had in my time as a journalist, and finding out he died - and being responsible for his body being found - was a painful shock.

Doug was a prolific writer on his blog, "Arthur: Notes from the edge." He hadn't posted in more than two weeks and hadn't responded to my message to see how he was doing, so I reached out late June 10 to a community service officer who knew him. The officer found Doug's body the next day in his dwelling in the woods in Elgin.

I cried at the news. It wasn't just my sense of loss, but a profound sadness that it was a reporter - not a loved one, a friend, or even a community member - to sound the alarm.

I was contacted later by a woman who said she was Doug's friend and had called the police department earlier in the week because she, too, was worried. The woman said she didn't insist on a welfare check. It's also likely Doug's absence would have been noticed sooner if not for the COVID-19 pandemic.

I met Doug in early 2018 after I decided I wanted to write about the life of a resident of Tent City, the year-round homeless encampment in Elgin. A local homeless advocate pointed me to Doug and his blog, which at that time had fewer than 100 followers. The count now surpasses 950.

Doug agreed to be interviewed after vetting me and my motives. He turned out to be really interesting - eloquent, smart, funny and opinionated. Over time, I came to see he liked to answer questions, but not necessarily be questioned.

I wrote two stories about him. One was a profile published in June 2018 after interviews at Gail Borden Public Library and at his camp, with great photos and video by my colleague Rick West. Doug, who was honorably discharged after serving in the U.S. Navy in his 20s, called himself "houseless not homeless" and maintained he was happy with his life despite its many hardships.

We kept in touch, communicating, even if briefly, every few weeks and catching up when we ran into each other at the library. I took him to lunch once at Burger King, his choice after I told him he could pick any spot in Elgin.

My second story was in early January, after he moved out of Tent City and was faced with eviction from his new dwelling because he was trespassing on Fox River Water Reclamation District land. I visited him with another colleague, John Starks, who produced more great photos and video. That time, impulsively, I did something I never did before: I gave him a hug. I'm so glad, because that was the last time I saw him.

I always vaguely worried about Doug. He was HIV positive and struggled with bipolar disorder and alcoholism while dealing with life on the streets. He admitted to occasional unsavory behavior but didn't like to dwell on the details. His last arrest was in 2015. Elgin police said they got a report of him allegedly being aggressive as recently as May.

I also always wondered whether I was getting the true story from him, or whether he was telling me what he wanted to be true.

In a blog entry March 2019, Doug explained his decision to move out of Tent City like this: "I just don't feel comfortable where I'm at anymore. There's nothing specific, just a gut feeling." He later told me he sought solitude because he'd experienced too much conflict with people he felt he didn't have much in common with.

After my story in January, another media outlet interviewed Doug, who told that reporter he'd moved out because he was being harassed for being gay. (Doug was viciously harassed by one particular homeless individual, and he had an audio recording to prove it, but by the time he decided to leave Tent City, that individual had been in jail for a few months on unrelated charges).

I only knew Doug in a limited context and there is much about his past I don't know, but I ended up caring for him more than I realized. He changed the lens through which I view homelessness and made a lasting impression on me and many others thanks to his blog.

He was well worth knowing, and I'm grateful he gave me the chance.

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Elena Ferrarin covers the city of Elgin, plus a few smaller towns, and has been a reporter for the Daily Herald since 2011.
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